Helen McClory won the 2015 Saltire Society First Book prize for her flash fiction collection On the Edges of Vision. She now makes a narrative jump with novel Flesh of the Peach, and explains this impressive debut's rage and grief, tethered by nostalgia
Part way through a three day Greyhound journey from New York to New Mexico, Sarah Browne, the 27-year-old protagonist of Helen McClory’s debut novel Flesh of the Peach, is suddenly overwhelmed by the time she has to simply think; to stop and reflect. The book is only just beginning to piece together its complex chronology, but Sarah continues the wrenching self-assessment that has long underpinned her relationship with her estranged mother. But, with Maud Browne recently deceased, and Sarah escaping to the perceived comfort of the family’s cabin in Santa Fe, the past is an enduring aggressor: “Nostalgia was like a vine, strangling her, sickly scented... transmitting bits of something all the time."
Flesh of the Peach is both a gripping re-imagining of the traditional American road trip and a character examination whose deep focus is testament to the author’s forensic detailing and abiding humanity. In a novel that weighs the twin uncertanties of who we are and how we got here, it’s a pointed summarising of the ongoing struggle to outrun the past and establish yourself in the here-and-now.
As we talk over Skype, McClory is keen to expand on her intent with the passage in question. “Yes, I think you’ve actually just picked out kind of like the whole point of the novel,” she begins. “This whole nostalgia thing, it pains you. That’s the meaning of nostalgia, isn’t it? Something that hurts and that you keep returning to. It’s this idea that you can’t really get away from your past and also, perhaps, you shouldn’t get away from your past. I think that’s part of what Sarah’s doing; she’s always trying to keep moving forward, but the past, this kind of biting monster, keeps coming back and drawing her attention to it. But it’s something that you need to to be able to do.”
“Nostalgia is a necessary force for focusing the mind and understanding who one is as a person. It’s too easy to have a bad view of yourself, and I don’t mean that as a negative thing necessarily, but I think for most people, self-confidence can be an issue. You don’t have a complete version of yourself. You have all this nostalgia blocking your view but at the same time, you need it to allow a full view of your past and a full view of who you are. The whole book is Sarah coming to terms with who she is, but also pushing forward and changing who she is and how she responds to the world and her surroundings, kind of finessing her canvas. It’s a canvas that already has stuff on it but is not complete. So what do you work on and what do you leave? How do you find a focal point?”
Bolstered by McClory’s elegant and often playful use of language, Flesh of the Peach is an exhilarating debut. It houses a story rich and full. As Sarah sets off across America, she manages the day-to-day with steely efficiency; her grief is initially unformed but it looms. She contemplates how she will spend her inheritance. Eventually she meets Theo: an ostensibly ‘good man’ and potential soul mate but she questions the possibilities at every step: “There’s something about men when they expect you after a time to curdle or else they wait your hatred with a horse’s gross wet eyes...”
Aside from its compelling central character, Flesh of the Peach manages its complex narrative in a way that the writer’s debut – the 2015 Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year Award-winning On the Edges of Vision – could only hint at. That book, a wiry and often unnerving collection of experimental short fiction, was a convincing introduction, but the follow-up is a leap of some magnitude in both structure and technique. The book’s back and forth acts as a crafty narrative hook, but the way in which McClory manages past and present serves a deft broadening of thematic and character development. This complexity of chronology is satisfying, fleshing out a character in transit in more ways than one.
From her early years in Cornwall with her mother and sister Lucy, to the relationship she eventually begins in America with Theo, McClory paints Sarah from a respectful distance: with care and without judgement. Much of what we learn about Sarah comes from windows opened into events from her childhood. “Yeah, that aspect of the book was enjoyable,” says McClory. “But it was also essential. As soon as I started writing it, I knew that her past was going to keep coming with her and her character was built around that. I didn’t sit down and plan it out. I never do. It always takes me ages to write things because I try and follow the characters and see what they do, and see where their depths are. Her [Sarah's] whole attention is focused on herself.”
You could picture the book working well as a movie: it has the feel, in parts, of an early 70s Hollywood studio picture with sharply understated performances and an unintrusive camera, perhaps. “I’m very pleased that you say that, actually, because I love movies and I’m constantly watching them and talking about them. I’m a fan of a lot of different things but I do like horror. I had a month in 2014 where I watched a horror film every day.” Whoa. “I know. It was really just to try to trigger the creative process and see what kind of imagery I could get out of that. I found it quite rewarding.
"I like those films where you can’t quite tell if the monsters are something that the character has created themselves: something that might be a manifestation of their behaviour. The Shining is a good example of that. As is the TV show Hannibal, which is kind of operatically terrifying but with a really keen sense of what makes people work.” Further cinematic reference points? Try Pedro Almodovar’s recent Julieta: a return to form for the Spanish auteur and a deftly rendered visualising of the works of short story exemplar Alice Munro. Flesh of the Peach's unfliching exploration of loss and grief aligns with that movie (and its source material) in both tone and mode: McClory frames her brief chapters like scenes, and her shot selection and edits serve her purpose well: heightening drama and propelling her taut narrative.
McClory’s Twitter followers would have seen seen her set a challenge for International Women’s Day recently: to name one novel by a female writer and why they recommend it. Many people answered having not read the question, naming just the author or multiple books. McClory has mixed feelings on the matter: “Well, it’s very interesting because I did something similar a couple of years ago, where I specifically asked only men to recommend one woman writer whose book they liked and why. So it was basically the same question but only for men.
"That time, so many people struggled. It was awful. I had people who’d just reel off a list of names. This time around, it was better. Perhaps because I didn’t specify a gender, although I did say later on that it would be nice if some men would respond. The first time, people were very defensive – especially men. They’d say: ‘Oh! I know all these female writers! I love female writers!’ This time, there were a few like that. I understand with Twitter that’s it’s easy to not fully get the intent but there were guys who were keen to demonstrate that they liked female writers. Ultimately, I just wanted people to recommend one woman, one book so that others could then respond to it in a meaningful way. Don’t tell me about Joyce Carol Oates! She’s written, what, fifty books? Offer something that other people can use.”
We close by talking about what’s next and McClory is excited about her future projects: “I’m working on a novel and another flash fiction collection. The novel is a bit of a shift – it’s fantasy about a young woman who can kill gods and it’s set in a world very close to our own but... different. The flash fiction is going to be in a similar vein to my first collection but it will have a more cinematic focus. Some of the stories will be actually be interpretations of films. It’s early days but I’m really pleased with how it’s going so far - we shall see!”