One of my favorite things about reading books from small presses are the literary gems that I discover from their quiet and brave authors. Country Life, the latest novel from Ken Edwards, is one such piece of fiction released by Unthank Books. It is not surprising that Edwards is also a poet, has published several volumes of poetry and is also a musician. The text of Country Life oftentimes reads more like a poem or a song than the prose of fiction. This is very fitting for Edwards’s main characters who are musicians that like to do interesting experiments with their craft.
The main protagonist of Country Life is twenty-one-year old Dennis Chaikowsky, an unemployed musician who is house-sitting for his vacationing parents. Dennis lives out in the country, on the coast of a peninsula, in a quiet neighborhood that is overshadowed by a nuclear power station. The peaceful sounds of the sea and wildlife are disturbed by the lights and noises of the power station. Dennis is recording all of the sounds of the peninsula and mixing them with his computer to compose what he calls “World Music” in 25 parts. The landscape and the sounds emanating from it become an integral part of Edward’s deeply poetic text:
The town lay silent and all the little birds. And from it, we may follow the railway line, venturing over rust and rubble. And the light from the coast. Information sent along the pathway to the superior colliculus, responsible for controlling and initiating eye movements, producing visual awareness. Travail and trouble. The lorries on the road. We may suppose you call it territorial behavior. With auditions, something seemingly miraculous occurs. The sense of mystery, of a real danger to be faced, of an overwhelming spiritual gain to be won, were of the essential nature of the tale.
Dennis’s closest friend is a neo-Marxist named Tarquin who lives in the city and is a freelance writer for a business magazine. Even though they appear to be close friends, their arguments about philosophy cause them to be constantly annoyed with one another. One Sunday night when Dennis and Tarquin are roaming around the peninsula and arguing about philosophy, they encounter an old woman who is lost and confused. The men are very kind to her, especially Tarquin, and they figure out that she has dementia and they take her back to her home in a nearby housing complex. There is a chilling argument between Dennis and Tarquin about helpless and lonely people like this old woman and what value they have to society. Dennis has very dark thoughts about harming the woman and says that someone like her, who is making no contributions to society and is a drain on society, is expendable. But Tarquin believes, in the Marxist tradition, that we are all collectively responsible for one another regardless of what we contribute to society.
While they are taking the old woman home they encounter a musician named Severin and his wife Alison. There is a sinister aura that surrounds the couple and there are hints that Severin is addicted to drugs and abusive to his wife. Severin travels for long periods of time with his band, so this allows Dennis and Alison to spend quite a bit of time together and to have a sexual encounter. Alison seems lonely and for her the sex is an isolated incident, never to be repeated. But Dennis becomes deeply attached to Alison and wants a long-term relationship with Alison. The best way to describe the plot of this book is a tragicomedy. Because Dennis is naïve, young, and inexperienced he gets himself into ridiculous situations that have an underlying tone of humor. But we know from the beginning, from his encounter with Alison, that things are not going to work out for them very happily in the end. Edwards foreshadows with his poetic prose, “Here the hero sets out on a journey with no clear idea of the task before him.”
I received a review copy of this interesting book from Ben Winston who has started the website called Vibrant Margins. The site is dedicated to bringing readers the best and most interesting books from small presses. Readers can order subscriptions of books in various amounts. I highlighted Ben’s site when I did my post about small presses and how to support them with subscription plans. I am going to review one more book in the inaugural lineup of Vibrant Margins, so stay tuned for another post which also features a generous book giveaway from Ben.
About the Author:
Ken Edwards was born in Gibraltar in 1950, went to King’s College London in 1968, where he studied under the late Eric Mottram, and lived in London until 2004, when he moved with his wife Elaine to Hastings.
Since 1993, he has run Reality Street, which was formed through the amalgamation of his own Reality Studios imprint with Wendy Mulford’s Street Editions.
Ken has also been involved in composing and performing music since the early 1990s. Currently he plays bass guitar and sings with The Moors and Afrit Nebula, bands he co-founded with Elaine Edwards.
His publications include eight + six (Reality Street), Good Science (Roof Books, New York) Bird Migration in the 21st Century (Spectacular Diseases, Peterborough), and a first novel Futures (Reality Street). Other recent publications are: Nostalgia for Unknown Cities (Reality Street, 2007) and Bardo (Knives Forks & Spoons Press, 2011). A collection of short fictions, Down With Beauty, appeared in 2013, and, as of 2016, he was working on a new novel, The Grey Area.