Clay, by Melissa Harrison, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 262 pages
The under-tens, writes Melissa Harrison, “deal in little sticks and pebbles; they are artisans of holes, experts in the types and properties of stones; they appreciate the many qualities of mud and its summer corollary, dust. And then they grow up, and the ground is just whatever’s underfoot.”
It is hard to believe Harrison ever lost this basic curiosity. Her debut novel, Clay, moves to rhythms that we associate less with fiction than with the close-descriptive style of nature writers such as Robert Macfarlane or Kathleen Jamie. There are obvious dangers here, not least that the narrative impulse might be lost. But Harrison avoids them, thanks in part to her restrained lyricism and also to a cast of characters in whose company such observational writing seldom feels out of place.
Nine-year-old TC, neglected by his mother and unmissed at school, spends his days in the small park close to his south London home, tracking animals or simply taking in the surroundings from high in the branches of a favourite oak.
Jozef, a Polish migrant who works in a fast-food outlet and dreams of his lost farm, finds TC one night, weeping in the rain. Conscious that reaching out might be misconstrued, he also cannot countenance the “greater wrong” of walking away; so he intervenes and takes the lost boy under his wing.
Observing them is 78-year-old Sophia, who bonds over nature projects with her granddaughter and wrestles with her inability to love the girl’s mother, upwardly mobile Linda.
Occasionally, Harrison offers us unlikely internal monologues, as when TC considers his failure to be moved by the latest toys: “Maybe the shops were like EastEnders; if you stopped keeping track for a bit then none of it made sense and you didn’t care anyway.” It is a fine observation but a writerly one for a child to make.
Overall, though, this is a poised novel. In chapters with names that belie the modern urban setting – Martinmas, Hallantide, Pag Rag Day – descriptions of the changing seasons mirror the incremental human progress being made in and around the park. And although we know from the outset that TC will end up in the care of social workers, it feels like a disservice to describe the quietly shocking conclusion.
At the heart of Clay is a hymn to attentiveness, both to the natural world and to those we share it with. Stepping out after finishing this book, you may find yourself looking at your own streets with a little more care.