A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
In ancient Britain stragglers from a lost legion of the Roman army massacre a Celtic settlement at Barthomley. They take a Celtic priestess prisoner and hide from retribution at a place called Mow Cop, a gloomy hill considered sacred by the natives. Among them is Macey, normally weak, shy, and subject to epileptic fits, he is the only one of them who can wield a magical stone axe that gives him a berzerker-like aptitude for violence. Despite his value as a warrior, Macey’s esteem in the legion is slowly undermined by his feelings for their captive priestess.
Fifteen-hundred years later, during the English Civil War, the village of Barthomley is busy building defenses when Thomas Rowley discovers Macey’s axe head and presents it to his wife Margery. Soon after, the couple is confronted by a former lover of Margery’s who is now on the opposing side of the war.
In the 1970’s, teenagers Tom and Jan struggle with an intense long distance relationship. They meet monthly in Barthomley, halfway between Tom’s home in Rudheath and Jan’s in London. There, on the hill called Mow Cop, they discover the ancient stone axe head. It becomes a potent symbol of their relationship, cherished by both of them. Yet, in the end, it seems as if the violent power of the object might overwhelm them.
Alan Garner’s short novel Red Shift is a kind of experimental fantasy tale. It’s told in a torrent of dialogue that can be difficult to follow at times, rushing the reader from one time frame to another. The fantasy element is really pretty subtle and most of the book is spent exploring its central themes of love and violence. It’s an odd plot–a mystical stone axe that disrupts three relationships over a span of eighteen-hundred years–but there are some interesting characters, a surprising amount of emotional depth, and some cleverly juxtaposed thematic elements in the novel. Plus the narrative alternation from one timeline to another helps build a sort of suspense that will keep you turning the pages. A great read for anyone looking for fairly challenging literary fiction that features a sci-fi/fantasy element as well.
Review by Matthew