The Short Version: Revolutionaries fleeing a failed operation in near-future England, in the midst of a Second English Revolution, head for the Scottish border. There, they hole up in a house with two strangers – one of whom might be more than first meets the eye…
The Review: First, a little background. Unsung Stories is a new publisher out of the UK, with a few beautiful-looking novels to their name – and, kicking off just a few months ago with Winter, a series of e-novellas running under the moniker “Unsung Signals”. If the level of quality and intrigue keeps up, Winter presages great things to come.
There’s something beautiful and wonderful about the novella-length story, as a form. When done well, it can land with the same potency as a full-length novel but with far less outward effort. It can also, and I say this as a positive attribute, leave the reader with questions that linger longer than they would after a more fully-described novel. It would’ve been easy for Dan Grace to go deeper into the world of this “Second English Revolution”, to explore the politics of the Green Man and what life was like in a more violent and territorial England in the mid-21st Century… but, instead, he leaves us with just enough to know that we would want more. A bombing at St. Pancras Station that kills three generations of the Royal Family, a Scotland that successfully seceded, a populist movement against the increasingly corrupt (and possibly facist?) government – these are things that aren’t completely ridiculous to imagine. It was surreal, I have to say, to be reading this novella hot on the heels of outcry about David Cameron’s potential involvement in the Panama Papers scandal and to imagine what an uprising (even a non-violent one) might look like in the UK right now.
The chapters of the novella alternate between the present-tense action (actually written in the present tense) and scenes about how the characters got to this house in the Scottish wilderness (written in past-tense). It’s a canny move on Grace’s part, getting the reader more invested without their even knowing it each time the plot returns to that present-tense movement. It also helps keep us a little destabilized, which particularly helps as the otherworldly nature of the story begins to creep into the telling.
There’s also a lot that’s left unsaid in the telling, which leads to a feeling of dread throughout. One chapter is only one word long – an unspecified character shouting “Drone!” – and the incident is never explained. Several incidents are also left without direct depiction or explanation and this haziness does more than any actual description could to get the reader in the same mindset as the characters, all of whom are at some measure of the end of their tethers out there in the wilderness as winter sets in. They’re all feeling a bit of cabin fever, a bit of willful ignorance about reality, and a bit of xenophobia – all of which are bolstered by a lack of concrete information, both in real life and in literature.
And then there’s the magic.
I’ve long been intrigued by tales of the Green Man and his relation to English mythology – and so it seemed quite right that an uprising would take the Green Man to heart. But the way that Grace weaves the less-literal adoption of the Green Man for the uprising with the very real possibility of a Green Man of a magical bent is bewitching, a little confusing, and completely engaging. I thought of Jez Butterworth’s tremendous play Jerusalem several times while reading this short piece (which, it should be noted, can be read in a single sitting) and how both works are trying to come to terms not just with the political realities of a modern England but how the land itself and the mythology that still lingers there continues to influence that so-called “modern” society. Grace’s novella, of course, shifts the possibility into reality while Butterworth’s play keeps it purely as a suggestion… but Mikhail and Rooster might not be too different, is the thing. I have no idea what Mikhail’s deal is and I’m not sure that Grace does either… but his impact is potent and baffling, giving the story a boost from just being a Children of Men-esque look at a dystopic future England.
Rating: 4 out of 5. An auspicious debut for the Unsung Signals line of short novellas. At the outset, it seems to be a tale of a near-future England under a dystopic and violent collapse… but Dan Grace weaves in English mythology in a way that transforms the tale from something ordinary into something surprising. The best part is that while it can (and perhaps should) be read in a sitting, it continues to rattle around in the reader’s brain long after that single sitting – and gives me high hopes for both Grace’s career and the next-arriving Unsung Signal.