As the title suggests, reality is a tricky matter in Verity Holloway’s darkly compelling debut novel. When is a tooth not a tooth? When does it become something else? What if it was something else all along? Most disturbing of all is the question of whether it occupies conflicting realities simultaneously.
We don’t normally associate teeth with this kind of abstraction. They are visceral things, hangovers from our animal past, particularly the carnivorous bits. In this story, though, one of them forms a kind of anchor for the protagonist, Aisling Selkrik, as she negotiates contradictory realms that blend into a weird narrative that is all the more unsettling for its grittiness.
Aisling is sent to the country to recuperate from an unknown illness characterised by ‘pseudo-seizures’, the catch-all title for an inexplicable, possibly psychological malaise. Here again we sense the osmotic relationship between reality and fantasy: Aisling is clearly suffering with something, it’s just that medical science has no explanation for what it is. The seizures are depicted as being both real and very unpleasant; indeed, one of the novel’s many strengths is how it portrays the sheer exhausting toll illness takes on the people living with it and those who love them. There is another unpleasant level to the opening situation: Aisling’s mother Beverley wants rid of her inconvenient daughter to spend time with an ex-boyfriend; worse still, one who sexually abused Aisling when Beverley was with him last time.
Aisling stays with Edythe, an aunt of her mother’s. I really wanted Edythe to soften at one point and prove that perhaps her Spartan, antiseptic regime might be motivated by something other than disgust, but no. At one point, Aisling travels in time, encounters Edythe as a child and finds that Edythe is just as vile then.
Under constant stress within and without, the sensitive, clever and wholly sympathetic Aisling has only her precious book of Blake poems to provide succour. Blake is an interesting choice; not just for his life, which seems to have been lived on more than one plane of existence, but for the work itself with its odd, hauntingly disjointed half-rhymes and visions of God or the angels depicted with crisply etched, anatomically accurate lines. ‘Pseudotooth’ feels like it has similar ambitions. On one level, the book is a portal fantasy in which the heroine travels to another world. However, there is a constant question underlying the story of whether she has truly gone ‘elsewhere’ or whether she has succumbed to her illness and is lying comatose in Edythe’s chilly house. Also, the other world is no pastoral idyll informed by medieval Northern European folklore with richly coloured heraldry and a panoply of favoured supernatural beings. This other world is an Orwellian nightmare that is only a slight remove from our own realm, although given recent political events it’s a remove that gets less by the day.
Dead towns with the feel of post-Blitz London spiral towards a centre ruled by ‘Our Friend’, the mysterious overlord who with the best intentions has reduced the land to a state of cold, muddy terror. The true identity of Our Friend and his link to Aisling and the Pseudotooth is one of the great twists of the novel as it braids all of the influences of Aisling’s life into a single narrative.
One such strand concerns Feodor, whose story comes to Aisling as she writes her journal. Feodor is a young pyromaniac, possibly a psychopath, although given his awful upbringing and the way he is treated by his peers it is hard to say for certain. Feodor reaches out of the world of Our Friend to Aisling; they even touch at one early point. Feodor’s story then begins to enter the main narrative as he becomes a separate narrator in the novel proper.
The loss of mothers is a link between Aisling and Feodor; Aisling’s has abandoned her to recommence a romance with an abuser; Feodor’s mother is dead and to get away from the toxic relationship the young man has with his father in a blighted inner city flat he visits the financially generous paedophiles next door, one of whom may or may not be Aisling’s long lost father. Meanwhile, Feodor’s father may have let a woman die back in their native Russia, a woman who is probably the mother of Our Friend.
Whether these threads are a true reflection of events or the workings of a deteriorating mind desperate to find patterns in the inexplicable does not matter; what’s more important is how much we care about what happens. For example, when Aisling transitions fully into the other world via the priest hole in Edythe’s house that also stores the ultra-repressed ramblings of a step-brother whose philosophy sounds a lot like Our Friend’s, she starts to get better. Given the horrible experience of her life so far, this improvement is as much a relief for the reader as it is for Aisling, because the author doesn’t skimp on how debilitated her protagonist is.
Aisling finds herself on the run from Our Friend’s minions accompanied by the comely Chase, a young blond man whose worldly cunning seems at odds with his innocence. We want Aisling and Chase to be together, especially when they house with enigmatic matriarch Tor and plaintively lonely boy genius Georgie. But when Aisling and Chase stumble across the adult Feodor in a wrecked chapel in the woods, will he be a help to them or a terrible hindrance?
For all the abstraction suggested in this summary, the novel is rooted in a sense of lived experience. From the overarching, elemental images of fire and water to the size and weight of the tooth as it accrues mass and grisly residue, there is a constant tension between a very English rawness and the esoteric vulnerability of the protagonist. Unique, clever and with a kind of patient compulsion, the novel has a distinctive voice that finds beauty in despair.