Friday, 1 October 2010

Review: Tom Fletcher, The Leaping (Quercus, 2010)

Published by Quercus in 2010, Tom Fletcher's The Leaping tells the story of Jack and Francis, two university graduates who work in a call centre in Manchester. Fletcher's debut novel has already attracted a great deal of praise - and was nominated for The Guardian's Not the Booker Prize.

It's quite difficult to write a synopsis of the plot of The Leaping without giving too much away. So suffice to say, Jack meets a woman named Jennifer at work, and the two quickly form a relationship. Eager to escape the city, Jennifer buys a dilapidated house in the Lake District, and she and Jack move there. Horror (and genuinely frightening horror at that) ensues. Paralleling this is the story of Francis, who is obsessed by the danger and disease (particularly cancer) that he perceives as existing all around him. Francis is forced to address some of these issues when his dad is diagnosed with throat cancer. Francis's revulsion and fascination with the diseased and disintegrating human body is a driving force of his narrative, and contributes significantly to the awfulness of what happens.

I was first made aware of Fletcher's novel when I was contacted by writer and lecturer Nicholas Royle. Having heard about the She-Wolf conference, Royle wanted to recommend The Leaping, and I was duly sent a review copy. The tagline on the front of the paperback edition reads: "An ancient evil is waiting...", and the blurb on the back promises: "When the sky is blood-red, when the rivers freeze and snow lies upon the fells, it's time for the wolves to cross - time for the Leaping." Given this introduction, I was expecting a 'werewolf novel' - indeed, that was the reason it had been recommended to me in the first place - but I soon realized that this is far from an adequate assessment of Fletcher's novel.

Although the "ancient evil" is waiting for the protagonists in Cumbria, the first part of The Leaping is set in Manchester. Fletcher's portrayal of the city combines the familiar (for example, the characters drink in 'actual' Manchester bars) and the uncanny (such as the unsettling presentation of Jack's bosses in the call centre), creating a 'Manchester' that is just as terrifying as the Cumbrian setting of the second half of the novel. Indeed, Fletcher skillfully weaves 'urban horror' with 'horror at the urban' to make an unnerving cityscape. Consider this passage from early in the novel, which exemplifies the book's approach to modern life: "The Christmas lights were up but not yet turned on. Electricity meant we could work all kinds of shifts and stay out all night with our vision unimpaired, and it turned us into unnatural creatures, awake and ravenous all the time." Or this apt description of work in a faceless call centre: "The slimish scorn of the nation, dripping through earpieces and trickling into our open ears like warm, lumpy milk." It is from this horror that Jack and Jennifer attempt to escape by moving to the Lakes - only to run into something potentially worse. However, Fletcher's presentation of the two different settings leaves the reader to question whether the "ancient evil" of Fell House is really much worse that the "darkness of our own invention, all muggings, murders, rapes".

This 'urban horror' is compounded by Fletcher's careful characterization. Jack and Francis - the novel's two narrators - live in a student-house-like residence with other recent graduates, Graham, Taylor and Erin. The five met at university, completed their studies, and have since drifted into shift work at a call centre, regular drinking and a gradual loss of motivation and ambition. Fletcher's descriptions of student-esque life are evocative and identifiable, as well as grounded definitively in the early 21st century: "So if you drew a Venn diagram of all the things that we - the five of us - like, the area in which all our circles overlap would contain one thing: Mario Kart." Later on, as the five attempt to come up with a name (for something I shall not reveal), they run through a medley of pop culture, history and politics that reads like a who's who for today's twenty-somethings - beginning with Tim Burton, ending with Hitler, and including Gandhi, Kilroy, Homer, Brad, Spacey, Bush and Spongebob.

Though Fletcher's graduate cast are instantly recognizable - particularly for those who have lived through that transition from 'student' to 'real world' - they are not stereotypes or cliches. Each character is carefully and individually drawn. By doing this, Fletcher manages to pull of the difficult task of using multiple first person narrators. Alternate chapters are told from Jack's and Francis's perspective. I have read a number of books recently that employ this technique, and, in my opinion, Fletcher has mastered it. Unlike with some multiple-narrator novels, I did not find myself having to flick back to the beginning of the chapters to remind myself who was speaking. Jack and Francis have distinct voices, and I came to feel that I 'knew' each narrator well enough to tell the difference between their stories. And of course, the identification and empathy the reader feels for the central characters adds further layers to the horrific events that occur later in the novel.

One exception to this - and one of the few criticisms I have of the book - is the characterization of Jennifer, Jack's girlfriend. Jack is instantly besotted with the woman he describes throughout as "Morgana le Fay"; Francis also becomes fixated on her. As Jack and Francis utterly idealize and near-venerate Jennifer - and it should be remembered that Morgana has long been associated with goddesses and 'the Goddess' - it is hard to move beyond the young men's awe and see the woman behind it. The novel's other female character, Erin, is somewhat more fleshed out, and this is partly achieved by the novel's beginning with a prologue spoken in her voice. I would, nevertheless, like to have seen and known more of Jennifer.

I am aware that I have almost come to the end of this review without mentioning werewolves at all. And this is no accident. In many respects, it is a shame that Fletcher's book has been consistently categorized, marketed and reviewed as a 'werewolf book'. There is so much more to the novel than lycanthropy; as I have suggested, the book is as much an unsettling tale of modern life for today's burgeoning graduate class as it is a werewolf gorefest. The scope of the horror in The Leaping is carried through the precision and skill with which Fletcher uses language. The hallucinatory quality to his writing makes even the most mundane incident seem dangerous and sinister, while also making the more fantastic elements utterly believable.

Fletcher's werewolves are original, frightening and thought-provoking - and, indeed, I shall be exploring them more in future articles - and, for that reason, I recommend the novel to anyone interested in the werewolf mythos or lycanthropy. However, I would also recommend this book to people who are not particularly interested in werewolves, or who may be turned off by the idea of a novel about lycanthropy. It is an accomplished and stylish contemporary horror novel, and well worth a read.

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