Red Shift – Alan Garner

Red Shift

Red Shift


At three different times, young men struggle to understand the world and make themselves understood in the vicinity of Mow Cop hill, tied together by an ancient stone votive axe.


Alan Garner’s books were important to my childhood, from The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (we even had it on tape) to The Owl Service (which was definitely more adult than I was when I read it). I was excited to run across a book of his I’d never heard of (and one with a science fiction-oriented title). That fond familiarity is doing a lot of work in bringing this book the rating I give. And, for that matter, in getting me to finish it at all. In the end, I rated partly for intent rather than accomplishment.

Garner is best known for children’s books. Red Shift is a shift to an older set of characters. It’s never quite clear how old they are, but old enough to have sex, at any rate. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it did take me a moment to readjust my expectations.

With that shift, Garner seems to have decided to take the opportunity to experiment. Some of the narrative shortcuts he’s relied on in other books (such as elided but implicit dialogue) are taken to extremes here. To be blunt, I found it difficult to be sure what was happening at almost every point in the book. Had the author not been Alan Garner, I doubt I’d have made it past the first 20 pages. As it is, I persevered, but I’m not sure it was worth the effort. In plain terms, the book is a mess.

Tom, the protagonist of the most modern and accessible section, and both of his past analogs, appears to have some form of neurodivergence, though it’s never clear quite what. All three of the analogs, find it difficult to express themselves – at times childish or vague, at times highly sophisticated and knowledgeable. Each is loved and supported by a woman, though it’s frankly never clear what they see in him.

It’s not just the overall plot trajectory that’s muddled; that part is actually possible to follow. But the personal interactions – which are the core of the story – are maddeningly vague, exacerbated by dialogue that seldom gives much indication of what the context is, or even who is speaking.

I expected to like this, and very much wanted to, but in the end, I couldn’t. It’s too stylized, too inferential, and just too hard to make sense of.

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