Berg by Ann Quin
Ann Quin's experimental debut novel has a runaway, off-kilter style all of its own
Berg is the madcap debut novel by Ann Quin, the experimental, working class writer who came to prominence in the 1960s, and who has recently seen a resurgence in appreciation following a new edition of her short stories last year. In this book, Quin’s gift for the disquieting domestic comes to the fore in a travelling salesman named Berg, who assumes the identity of Greb and travels to a seaside town intending to kill his father, who lives with his lover, her cat, a ventriloquist’s dummy and a beloved pet bird in a cage.
As Berg becomes entangled with the eccentric couple, having rented a shabby room next door from which he can listen through the thin walls, he alternately spies on them and ingratiates himself by doing small favours and stopping by; putting off the killing until the right, decisive time arrives. Meanwhile, letters from his mother arrive, enquiring after the business of hair tonic sales, and pleading for return letters.
The best novels about the seaside highlight its capacity for freakshow oddity, of hopes dashed and penny-pinching, temporary pleasures among the helter skelters. Berg reminds a little of Veronique Olmi’s tragic Beside the Sea, or Ferrante’s lost dolls in the sand, but with a runaway, off-kilter style all of its own that reminds the reader how celebrated Quin ought to be.