Finding a fifty euro note while crossing the Piazza Farnese near her home in Rome, nineteen-year-old Katherine interprets it, not as a stroke of luck, but as the first of several messages signifying that her life is about to change. When she hears an English couple in a cinema discussing a friend of theirs with an apartment in Berlin, she feels that after “so many dry runs and rehearsals” it’s time to act. So, instead of taking up her place at Oxford University, she wipes her computer files, throws her smartphone in the river and boards a plane for Germany. A series of chance encounters take her progressively further from her itinerant journalist father and her friends in Rome, through Russia and into the frozen bleakness of Northern Norway in winter. As she jubilantly sheds her real identity to follow increasingly risky opportunities, the reader wonders if she’s in the process of finding or losing herself.
My emotions are still frozen, my nerve-endings numb. Sometimes I imagine I have been carved out of ice, like a swan in a mediaeval banquet, and that my heart is visible inside, a gorgeous scarlet, but motionless, trapped, incapable of beating or feeling.
More tragic still, since her mother’s cancer was the result of IVF, Katherine feels responsible for her death. Even before she embarked on her journey, an episode of self-harm should have signalled her vulnerability (p59):
Seizing a pair of scissors off the table, I snipped at the flesh at the base of my thumb … The blood slid down my wrist with real purpose. Sometimes I have to prove that I exist. That I’m vibrant on the inside. Colourful. I’m not a freak, an experiment. A shell.
Katherine’s recklessness is a prime example of manic reparation, in which the person attempts to fix themselves without fully acknowledging their pain. She is an engaging character, even as we despair at her choices and beg her to come home. Rupert Thompson is the extremely versatile author of nine previous novels, including one of my favourite all-time reads, Divided Kingdom, so I was looking forward to reading his latest. I’m delighted to say that it did not disappoint. Thanks to Corsair for my review copy.
I immediately thought of Katherine when I came across the latest Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge to write a 99-word story about wild spaces. My character, Sylvia, feels the pull of the wild, but she has a much more conventional alter ego.
Miss Prim Takes a Break
“A fortnight in Bognor with your mother again, Sylvia?” The manager smirked as he copied her dates onto the chart. “Don’t forget to send us a postcard!”
Sylvia smiled demurely. That smart arse wouldn’t last five minutes where she was headed. Soon she’d exchange her handbag for a backpack, the trill of the phone for birdsong, fluorescent light for the wide open sky. Watercooler gossip for solitude, delicatessen sandwiches for line-caught fish fried over an open fire. Somehow the pleasure of her wilderness retreats intensified in the knowledge that, back at the office, they knew her as Miss Prim.
For a longer piece of flash fiction on running wild, see In Praise of Female Parts. For a slightly longer story on the wish to invent oneself anew, see my short story Doctoring.
For another novel about a childhood on the edge of the wild North Sea, see my review of Elemental and, if you comment by 16 February, you’re in with a chance of winning a free copy.