Edward Buckmaster has been living in a barn on the edge of a moor for five seasons when a storm threatens to snatch the tarpaulin from his roof. He’s embraced the simple life, surviving on bread, beans, water and black tea, and a monthly bar of chocolate. He’s seeking some form of enlightenment, or perhaps running away from the world, abandoning his baby daughter and her mother for the hermit’s life.
So far, so strange, but, as his story progresses we seem to understand less rather than more of his predicament. After Edward’s decision to brave the weather to attend to the roof, there’s a break in the narrative, until he awakes, badly injured, on the stone slabs of the yard. He doesn’t recognise the hovel we thought was his home and, the storm abated, the world is bathed in an unnaturally white light, and silence. Eventually, he recovers sufficiently to walk towards a town for more provisions, but he never quite makes it, his route continually circling back towards a church. It’s there that he first catches sight of the mysterious beast, not resembling any creature he’s ever come across. He decides to go in pursuit until the hunter becomes the hunted.
I was rather shocked when Edward consulted a map of his territory. It seemed incongruous when the reader has so few bearings as to what’s real and what’s hallucination. We’re right inside his head in stream of consciousness mode, and he isn’t inclined to tell us anything he takes for granted. The language is simple, dispensing with commas and, in the final third, even capital letters.
Wanting a firmer footing, my interest was piqued by a passing reference to a possible reason for his departure from civilisation, but Edward was more concerned about his basic needs of hunger and thirst and obsession with the beast. I wish I’d counted the number of times he mentioned taking a drink of water.
A proper literary novel, but not one for me, I’m afraid. Thanks to Faber and Faber for my review copy. If you’re interested in these themes, do consult my review of Time of the Beast, which I found more accessible.
The heat from the sun hit his face and he tried to move his head away, as if it were a bee worrying him. Then he closed his eye again. It was worse, the rocking and slipping under him. He felt sick with his eye closed.
A man sets out in a kayak, his father’s ashes at his feet. He might catch a fish; he’s left a note for a woman to put together a salad, but he hasn’t told her where he’s gone. Then lightning strikes and he wakes up, injured, adrift on the ocean, unsure who is. Now he must battle memory, thirst and sunburn if he’s ever going to make it back to the shore.
In pared down yet highly lyrical prose we live his trials alongside him, and feel his pain as if it were our own. I found Cove a compelling read but, while it’s a standalone piece with a book to itself, surprisingly short. I didn’t count the words, but it’s closer to a short story than a novel, or even a novella. But what’s the point of extra words when a skilled writer can evoke the drama of a man tested to his limits without them? Nevertheless, it does make it tricky to review when you could be halfway through his book before you’ve digested mine. Thanks to Granta books for my review copy.