Clay – Melissa Harrison

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We are the clay that grew tall.

When I was younger, my Dad taught me how to read an OS map.  Not just what the symbols in the legend mean, but how to read the landscape and compare it to the features on the map so you can easily find your way.  We would stand on top of a hill, holding the map, looking at geography like valleys, rivers, villages, roads, fields and woods, then look at the map to see how these features are represented.  He must have taught me well, as recently while out walking with some friends and paying little attention to where we were (because we were chatting) we realised we were slightly lost.  I took the map and had a look around.  It wasn’t long before I saw where we were by finding the field sloping away in front of us, the copse behind us and the fork in the path ahead.  I think he started me off with my obsession of “checking the map”.  I don’t own a SatNav, I like ticking off the towns and villages as we travel, I like to know where we are in relation to somewhere else (Mr FH will be sniggering at this as he thinks I am bad with directions, but that it different to being able to read a map).  It is knowledge that had become part of me, it is some of the “old way” passed on.  When my son’s school is closed for council elections soon, Dad is taking us both out for more map reading skills and therefore handing down the knowledge to another generation.

Melissa Harrison’s book, Clay, is not about maps, but in a similar way to my map story, it is about knowledge concerning our natural world passed down through generations.  It is about noticing what surrounds us and being aware of natural habitats and the seasons that dictate the lives of plants and animals.  Her story of TC, a boy from an inner city estate and largely ignored by his mother, Jozef a lonely immigrant worker, Sophia an elderly woman protective of the triangle of park outside her flat and Daisy her precocious granddaughter, is beautifully woven with the changing seasons in the park and on the common.  She integrates the changes in the seasons, the movement of animals through the urban landscape with changes in the characters’ lives as some struggle to survive, others struggle to understand or be accepted.

I’ve lived in a city and can imagine the pathetic strip of grass and trees complete with graffitied benches and overflowing bins used mainly as a thoroughfare from one road to another, desire paths weaving across the turf.  I’ve lived in a place where you recognise the faces of those regularly coming and going, not knowing who they are, but assuming things about their lives based on what you see and who you see them with.  Jozef and Sophia both notice TC wandering the park and common on his own, often late at night.  Daisy notices him playing and wants to join in.  Jozef notices Sophia shuffling along the high street, she notices him sitting alone on the benches.  Their lives are linked by their proximity but they all have their own struggles.

The main thrust of the story is inter-generational friendship and how it can help ease the loneliness the sometimes comes from living in a city.  Jozef knows a lot about the land, he lost his farm in Poland but cannot forget what he knows.  He befriends TC who finds solace in the park and common after his father leaves.  It is a very sweet friendship based on knowledge.  TC wants to learn, Jozef has knowledge to offer.  This boosts his confidence having felt useless ever since arriving in the UK.  Naturally, such a relationship is suspicious to some.  Similarly, Sophia has knowledge she is willing to share with her granddaughter, but it is not as willingly accepted or wanted.  TC, Jozef and Sophia combat their loneliness by focussing on the changes in the landscape, how the trees change with the seasons, how the birds’ activities are dependant on the time of year and how the animals resident in the park strive to complete their circle of life.

It is the beautifully described passages on nature that make this book a pleasure and easy to read.  I wasn’t sure where the story was leading, but it didn’t really matter, I enjoyed walking through the seasons with the characters.  I have to admit to not being completely convinced that TC would have gone almost completely unnoticed by his mother, social services and his school for the best part of a year.   I was surprised that TCs father showed up out of nowhere and bemused at Daisy and her mother’s change of heart about Sophia.  I felt Jozef and TCs story was more believable and engaging on the whole.  But these are small quibbles because Melissa’s writing is lyrical and absorbing, she has told this story from a unique perspective and done a good job.  Her love of nature and landscape comes through in her writing without being too preachy.  It has made me think about my green space.  Despite being always on the lookout for my garden birds I am being more observant of the changes in my garden and how the inhabitants use it.  I’ve even downloaded a birdsong app to my phone!

I am hoping to meet Melissa Harrison this evening at a World Book Night event at Guildford Library.  I look forward to chatting to her about Clay and seeing what exciting things she brings along for her show and tell.

PS I think I was even more engaged with this story as the names Sophia and Daisy feature in my close family.

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5 thoughts on “Clay – Melissa Harrison”

  1. Terrific review. I really liked the focus on nature and the changing seasons in Clay – this is where Melissa’s writing really comes alive. I love your map reading story too.

  2. I was slightly more split than you by this one I think but for much the same reasons: I loved the writing but had to keep biting my tongue at the coincidences and loopholes within the plot strands. I can’t wait to see what she does with a second book though and if she turned her hand to writing short stories I would read them in a shot.

  3. I haven’t been able to decide whether I wanted to read this or not but your review’s convinced me to give it a go. Love the story of your map reading skills too – I’d be useless!

    1. Hi Naomi,
      I really enjoyed this book, she is an author to watch I think. I met her this evening at an event for World Book Night at a library near me. She was really lovely and enthusiastic about the natural world and sharing what she knows and reminding folk about their surroundings. It’s not a very long book, but well worth reading I think. I’d be interested to know what you think of it compared to all the Women’s Fiction Prize books you’ve read.

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