Wednesday, 28 August 2013

A Massive Human Heart

Song of the Sea God

by Chris Hill

 Jill realised that she had been longing for something like this all her life.

C.S Lewis, The Last Battle


The figure of Antichrist, in Christian apocalyptic literature, is based on the idea of a parody or simulacra - a fake or ersatz Christ, rather than some crude and blatant advocate of old-school evil. The 'beast' of the Book of Revelation, for example, cuts a semi-stylish figure, performing miracles and dazzling the kings of the world. You could definitely imagine the media crafting plausible arguments for his rule.

The most difficult art to master, it often seems, is that of discernment. How do we learn to differentiate between true and false saviours - between good and evil, and right and wrong? We live in a complex, rapidly changing, highly mediatised world, where the lines between appearance and reality are becoming increasingly blurred. 'Fair is foul and foul is fair', as the Weird Sisters chant to Macbeth, shortly before his own spiral into tyranny and embrace of old-fashioned evil.


Whether John Love, the chief protagonist of Chris Hill's novel, Song of the Sea God (Skylight Press, 2012) is good or evil is something the author skilfully leaves in the balance. We are shown both sides of this charismatic visionary and healer - the inspirational and the destructive - but we are not told what to to think or how to make up our minds. The writer knows it is not as simple as that - not as clear cut. Human beings are creatures of the deep in so many respects - many-sided, multi-layered and, when it comes to it, fundamentally and inexplicably mysterious. This is a book very much at home with that mystery. 

John Love - like the Irish sea god, Mananaan - arrives from the ocean. He comes in a storm and brings a storm in his wake. The dour, unimaginative, but safe and familiar routine of the novel's island setting is spectacularly shattered. No-one can quite piece together an understanding of what his ultimate goal might be - why he expends so much time and energy in such a wind-strewn, rain-lashed, God forsaken milieu - or what he hopes to gain by healing the sick, smashing statues and storming civic buildings.

John Love fills a gap. That's the key. That's how he gains a following. He speaks directly, without mediation, to the buried, half-forgotten, archetypal core within Hill's characters and also, by extension, within ourselves, the readers."He made me think about gods," says Ken Naylor. "The possibility, I mean. I hadn't thought about that in years." That's how Love wins a foothold in our minds. He reminds us of who we used to be - our lost potential and the hopes and dreams we invested in life and the world when we were young - the future stretching out like a magic carpet or the parade of kings that drives Macbeth mad.

"How full we are of watchfulness and need," meditates the narrator. "How desperate for something to fill the emptiness which has no name, which cannot be expressed. That longing."

Song of the Sea God unfolds in this gap, this emptiness. What recurs over 213 pages is the beating of a massive human heart - a sustained, compassionate and humourous meditation on what it feels like to be human, how we let our lives lose their shape and tautness, but how also - deep down where it matters - we never surrender or let go of the hope for redemption and a new beginning:

"We all need miracles I know, and even a little shabby one will do if it serves us. We drift through our lost lives, shoeless and alone, looking for something, as if hunting was, in itself, enough."

All that remains for us readers, perhaps, is to learn to channel and direct that hope and longing in a harmonious rather than a destructive fashion. In the words of the old song - it doesn't have to be this way:

"It brought wonder, it brought strangeness. There can be things you don't realise you need until you get them. Then you find out you have been yearning for them all along."



At 1 September 2013 at 03:01 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks John, what an interesting and thoughtful delve into the issues of the book. Apoloogies for not replying sooner (I was away on holiday)but I really think you have hit the nail on the head in this piece when it comes to the sort of things I was trying to talk about in Sea God. I think an important part of writing fiction is to to leave the reader room to form their own opinions of the text and you have done that brilliantly - just what I was hoping for when I wrote it! Chris

At 1 September 2013 at 03:20 , Blogger John Fitzgerald said...

Thanks very much Chris. I found it both entertaining and thought-provoking. A very human book, but one which doesn't boast about having all the answers. It leaves room for mystery and space, as you say, for the reader to form their own opinions.

All the very best, John.


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