The idea is inspired, the execution not so much.

opening remarks

The second novel on my to be read pile that the Costa judges have done me the favour of nominating – the intriguingly titled The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times by Xan Brooks.

knee-jerk observation

It’s early in the book and I don’t yet have a handle on what’s going on but here is a gorgeous paragraph:

There are some books where early on in the piece you simply need to go with the flow.  The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times is one of those books.  What I can figure at the moment is that Lucy is occasionally taken out to the forest with a small group of children?… teenagers?… adults?… not sure… to meet the funny men, a troupe of blokes (I think) named after characters from The Wizard of Oz.  This how the Tin Man, Lucy’s favourite, is described:

A second narrative thread deals with a man of small stature named Arthur Elms – though he’s initially described as the Imp – who appears to have the ability to produce fire from the tips of his fingers.  Arthur was hanging around a Spiritualist until, for reasons that haven’t as yet been made clear, he brains the Spiritualist with a rock, dumps his corpse in a river and then makes off with his horse.  Like I said, sometimes you need to put your trust in the author’s hands and hope that clarity will eventually come.

And here it is… clarity.  Lucy is in her teens, the year is 1923 and the funny men are living somewhere near Epping forest, possibly in residential care.  This would make sense given they all seem to have an infirmity of some sort as a result of the War.  Four kids, including Lucy, are driven to the forest to spend some time with these broken men.  The ‘Coach’, who organises these visits, guarantees the kids safety.  And yet it’s abundantly clear that Lucy’s grandfather is being asked to pimp her out to the funny men:

Just to be clear, in this novel Lucy and three other teenagers are sent, with the permission of their guardians, to fuck four damaged men out in the forest.  Brooks gives the scenario the trappings of a fairy-tale but it’s as seedy, exploitative and abusive as fuck.  Not to mention the whole underage sex thing.  I think I liked the novel better when I didn’t know what was going on:

What’s striking about The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times is the level of golly-gosh innocence imbued in the prose.  There’s even a wide-eyed tone to this disturbing conversation between Winifred and Lucy:

The plot involving the Imp – although he now calls himself the Magus as he moves from town to town performing acts of Spiritualism and producing flames from his fingertips – feels like it’s been cut and pasted from a different novel.  It’s a dark fantasy, with distinct tones of horror. There’s a scene where the Magus is on a train with a group of other passengers.  Gradually we discover that the other passengers are in fact the souls attached to the Magus, ones he can’t be rid of, including the Spiritualist he killed.  They take great delight in insulting the Magus.  It’s all very surreal and at odds with the events that happen in the forest… although, to be fair, they both have that fairytale vibe.

A discount Aleister Crowley indeed:

The second half of the novel focuses on Grantwood.  This is the house – the mansion – where the clocks all tell different time.  It’s the house where the funny men reside (in a nearby cottage on the property) and the house where Elms and Lucy meet, where the threads of the novel collide.  Grantwood and its land are owned by Lord Hertford, a man fifty years ahead of his time with progressive views on female suffrage, on improving the conditions for workers of all stripes:

Hertford, though, is dying of cancer and his son Rupert has been running the show for the last few years.  Rupert has the same progressive agenda but he’s also a hedonist with a short attention span a man who is fine with two young girls selling their bodies to the injured ‘heroes’ of the War:

At the centre of all this progress and hedonism, the snorting of coke, the underage sex and the debauched parties there is Grantwood.  A fairytale house with good intentions and yet a rotten core:

the gist of it

In an interview with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose on Xan Brooks said the following about the tone of his debut novel, The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times:

Putting aside the fact that Brooks provides the most brilliant elevator pitch for his novel – flaky magicians, masked monster and debauchery – the bit that struck me was his desire to downplay the tone, to counterpoint the strangeness and the prodigious snorting of cocaine with a matter of fact description of the events.  But it’s this authorial choice that’s my biggest stumbling block with the novel.  As I note above I wanted Lucy, as a point of view character, or even the books omniscient narrator, to reflect the fury I was experiencing at having four teenagers, barely hit puberty, fucked in Epping Forest by the funny men, soldiers so badly injured during the First World War that their families believe them to be dead.  I know Brooks is not condoning rape or paedophilia, but that innocent tone, that deliberate move to downplay the melodrama almost normalises what Lucy and Edith and Jack and Winifred experience.  It could be argued that Brooks has succeeded, that by muting the tone of the novel he allows the reader to transfer their own emotions and feelings on the text.  And yet I can’t help but feel that there’s something missing here, an emotional connection, a moment where Lucy feels deep hatred at these people – her grandparents who got paid, the Coach who facilitated the transaction, the funny men who got their rocks off.  Yes, the Scarecrow, the only funny man to eventually abstain from fucking these children, experiences self-loathing at what he’s perpetrated, but the story never provides us with his perspective.

I’m also not convinced that the shenanigans with Arthur Elms add much to the story.  I don’t mind that Brooks never truly explains how Elms obtained his magic – there’s this handwavy suggestion that the trauma caused by the War released energies that now reside in people like Elms – but he’s mostly an ineffectual character until, that is, his powers are needed to bring about the climax.

I certainly didn’t hate the novel.  I’ve not read many books that take place just after World War One and to characterise this period as a twisted and dark fairytale is an inspired idea.  I just don’t think Brooks completely pulls it off.