Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Deborah Harvey Dart (2013)
I've recently been raking over old diaries dating to my teenage years, few of which I've read since the time they were written. These being from three decades past, naturally there are names I had entirely forgotten, and so I've been googling a few of those named out of sheer curiosity - just to see what comes up. One such person was Stella Gill about whom I recall very little beyond that she sent me a Christmas card, that we were in the same college drama class, and that she was nice. I can't find her on the internet, although one link that came up was to the blog of Deborah Harvey, which presumably mentions either a person named Stella, or named Gill, or the town of Stratford-on-Avon. The blog carried no relation to the object of my quest so far as I could tell, but I clicked on the link anyway because Deborah Harvey bore a passing resemblance to the mysterious Stella Gill as was, and so for a moment I had wondered if it was her in the photograph. It wasn't, but my attention was caught by the fact that this person had published a novel, and a novel which sounded quite interesting. I had a look inside on Amazon and decided that Deborah Harvey could at least hold a sentence together, which always helps; and so I bought a copy because it sounded worth a shot, and the pleasingly esoteric route by which chance had chosen to bring Dart to my attention seemed too good to ignore. Furthermore, taking a second look at Deborah Harvey's blog, I noticed her being scheduled to attend a poetry reading with Charles Thompson whom I briefly knew from when I lived in Maidstone - another amusing, perhaps even absurd coincidence and indication of it being a small world.

This probably relates to Dart in some way, given that its people also inhabit a small world, albeit a small world set against the terrifying contrast of a vast universe they clearly don't understand quite so well as I suppose we do today. Specifically Dart is set amongst the subsistence farmers of rural Dartmoor in 1348, the year the plague first came to English shores. In such isolation, that which is imagined can seem as powerful as that which is really out there. As I myself grew up on a farm without either central heating or any really good reason to dismiss the tales of witchcraft that old folks in neighbouring villages used to mutter to each other, I recognise the atmosphere cannily woven here by Harvey with something running a bit too dark and deep to be described as pleasure.

Dart can be broken down to fourteenth century folk struggling to deal with the horror of the plague, and to attempt further description might be overstating the point when really you would do better just to read it for yourself. Happily it isn't a folksy tale of men in tights who sing songs and do go a-questing across the moor in search of a cure, and nor is it the predictable triumph of simple, plucky souls over black-hearted landowners with fancy ways. There is nothing twee here, just a fucking great novel written by someone who really knows how to tell a story, handles words with the finesse of a real poet, and who really knows what she's writing about. The overall effect is, I suppose, what you might call immersive. The reader is left in no doubt as to just how different this world was to our own, and yet we find common ground through the experience of its people, as beautifully told by the author.

Considering how I effectively came to this novel by means of a process which may as well have been a housebrick launched from the upper deck of a bus, I really could not have wished for a more satisfying result. Dart is a tremendous and accomplished read, and I really, really, really hope Deborah Harvey has other novels up her sleeve.

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