Flesh of the Peach

Helen McClory

Freight, £9.99

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Review by Richard Strachan

In New York City, in the aftermath of a failed relationship with a married woman, Sarah Browne tentatively decides to strike out west – "The question was vague because she herself was vague". She is trying to leave behind her heartbreak but not quite managing to abandon her damaged sense of self. A long way from her emotionally abusive childhood in Cornwall, Sarah takes the Greyhound bus through the vast expanse of the United States and "the flat empty earth of Oklahoma", heading for her late mother’s cabin in New Mexico. A successful and popular artist, her mother’s recent death has left Sarah in financial limbo, awaiting a significant windfall that she ruminates about in a series of sharp, sometimes surreal passages throughout the book, imagining what she’ll spend the money on: "huge slabs of carcass from best-beloved cattle" that she will hang "in a specially prepared cellar and frighten herself with their bodies", or maybe she’ll "build a house out of dogteeth", or "buy herself a new self". Taking up residence in the Sante Fe cabin where her mother once lived, Sarah soon meets Theo Coronado, a young man who lives on the neighbouring property. "He reeked of confidence," Sarah thinks, "and that special way of havoc that seems for a moment a good idea." As they begin a hesitant relationship, talking and hiking through the mesas, it soon becomes clear that Sarah has been more profoundly damaged by her upbringing than Theo realises, and that his more forthright and conventional needs are in no way going to be met by her; "he couldn’t see the flares or hear the frantic clicks emanating from her person". The fundamental impossibility of bridging the gap between two people can, in the end, only result in tragedy.

Helen McClory won a Saltire Award for her first book, On the Edges of Vision, a superb collection of stories that seemed to come from nowhere and that heralded a highly original and distinctive new stylist in contemporary fiction. In places extremely dark and strange, those twisted, febrile fables skirted the edges of horror and fantasy while managing to avoid any of the expected sub-Angela Carter cliches of the genre, at times becoming so compact and linguistically deft that they read more like prose poetry than short fiction. Given how impressive the stories are, McClory’s debut novel perhaps carries with it a greater degree of expectation than normal, and taken entirely on its own merits (which of course any book should be) there is much to admire in Flesh of the Peach. McClory’s portrayal of the darkness at her protagonist’s heart is admirably unflinching (and still surprisingly rare for a female character), and the short, numbered chapters thematically enforce Sarah’s sense of habitual progression, taking each meaningless day as it comes.

In comparison with the previous collection, though, the novel can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity. In fact, although chronologically it is the more recent book, Flesh of the Peach feels very much like the earlier work; a conventional account of a young person's ennui, formally and structurally straightforward, and too rigid with that exhortation to show rather than tell, so that even Sarah’s smallest actions are given unnecessary narrative or descriptive weight; she can’t make a cup of tea without the whole process being described, or enter a room without every moment being detailed for the reader’s benefit in a way that makes the story feel at times directionless and padded-out. Many of these faults are redeemed by McClory’s sinuous prose style, though, alive with unexpected constructions and observations; Sarah’s mobile phone as "a pallid blue spotlight on the floor that danced her descent", or, touring a ruined fort with Theo in the New Mexico plains, her desire "not to feel unstable and vicious as she did right then, in the absence of graspable fact and at the mercy of her violent mind".

McClory is clearly one of the best new writers to have emerged in Scotland in the last few years, but, despite the book’s many positive elements, Flesh of the Peach feels too much like the apprentice work of a writer developing her style and trying to identify the themes that resonate most with her. The earlier collection of stories was a startling sequence of dark and abiding images rendered in luminous prose, and it seems obvious that if McClory can again turn her prodigious imagination and talent to more interesting themes then she will produce something extraordinary.