View Full Version : Alan Garner: Red Shift

9th Aug 2009, 17:57
Which is the hardest book you ever read? The one which when you finishedit, you got rid of or ignored in despair for not understanding it whilst also recognising its brilliance. The one that made your brain ache just to grasp the edges of understanding it. The one you read over and over like an unsolvable mystery that mindboggles and bespells you. I know the ones that have foxed and strained my reading skills and bewitched me – Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire & Hemlock and Hexwood – but somewhere a thousand light years beyond them, stands Alan Garner’s Red Shift, a staggeringly complex text, an interweaving of three accounts (at least three), spanning three time periods, and dense with references which do not burden the writing but somehow float above it and through it like wisps of smoke.

However, it doesn’t do to be poetic about such a brutal and bitter book where the dialogue is so sparing and emotions and actions jammed up against each other that there is simultaneously no breathing space and also worlds of time elapse between one set of words and the next. As one reviewer has phrased it, there is a great deal of 'interlinear' action which only re-reading or mature reading will yield up, as with this example where careful reading indicates that the central characters Tom and Jan have made love, though there is no indication of time passing.

"It's hurting you too much. I'll get rid of it," said Jan.
"Have you caught up yet?" said Jan.
“I only want to know.”

However strenuous and searching this read is, its yield is rather tremendous and awe-full. Red Shift is the tale spanning three time periods of a trinity of young men, mental disturbed and emotionally fragile, who are held in tension and safety by location in and around an ancient village and sacred hill, by their relationship with a young woman and by possession of an ancient artefact. Due to the fit-like states and mental collapse that each occasionally succumbs to, they flow in and out of each other’s being and mental selves: Macey, the young conscript in a tiny remnant of the “lost” 9th Roman Legion, kills tribal Britons when his mind-rage comes upon him, but is spared the wrath of a young tribal priestess who is gang-raped and hobbled by his fellow soldiers; Thomas Rowley is married but his Commonwealth village is about to come under siege from a Royalist lieutenant and sadistic rival in love; present-day Tom, highly educated and intelligent but somewhat immature, is struggling to overcome the manipulations and tensions of his poor family upbringing whilst gradually destroying his needy and heartfelt relationship with Jan who has moved away to train as a student nurse in London. All three undergo a ‘red shift’, of madness reigning, of distancing themselves. The votive axe-head which features in all three accounts brings a kind of peace and settled life to two of the three but it bears destruction and sacrifice for the third. A coda written in code (thankfully deciphered by someone more brainy than myself) suggests a darker ending yet.

This is a frightening book – the jump-cuts in time and space and emotion, the flow of one scene or time into the next are difficult enough to engage with; then there are the emotions, the actions, the dialogue which are compressed and hard to grasp, and once grasped, are hard and bitter things. The bleak butchery by the Roman soldiers and Macey of tribal villagers, or the executions (and further rape) by the Royalist soldiers upon the villagers of Barthomley, make this a mature read for anyone. It demands further attention and to be more widely promoted, 36 years after it was written. For those who are interested in a far deeper analysis of this text, a helpful summary is here - http://www.absoluteastronomy.com/topics/Red_Shift_(novel)#encyclopedia

and for the myriad influences upon it (the ballad Tam Lin, for one), a link to Charles Butler’s excellent essay on the link with Tam Lin - http://alangarner.atspace.org/tl.html

and an interview with Alan Garner http://alangarner.atspace.org/swing2.html where amongst other things, he talks about how he developed the “American army” slang that the Roman conscripts use, and explores how despite his intellectual precociousness Tom’s emotional immaturity arises and affects the narrative.


10th Aug 2009, 15:38
I'm sorry, Col. I read this, admittedly 30 years ago, and thought: "Oh dear, Alan Garner has lost it". It seemed to me a pointlessly brutal, overly sentimental mish-mash of an inconclusive tale with a very forced allegorical message, that did not stand up to the standard of The Owl Service, Weirdstone of Brisingham, Moon of Gomrath, Elidor etc. In fact I don't think I've read an Alan Garner since. You're making me think I missed something.

10th Aug 2009, 17:52
It's certainly a very different story to the other four you mention, told in a different way, for a different age-group (perhaps not for teens at all in some respects). Its confusing multi-linear narrative and inconclusiveness can be a deterrent: I've only read it three times in 25+ years: when I first bought it, then last week and one other time somewhere between the two, when I have the recollection that I gave it up in confusion and freaked-outness halfway through.

I re-read The Moon of Gomrath last year but it is a lot more laboured than I recall, and the whole Gowther Mossack, cliched Cheshire rural-type, irritated me still.

12th Aug 2009, 10:10
I'll re-read some AG soon, and see what I think about him now. 30 years is a long time!

13th Aug 2009, 2:12
I re-read Red Shift just this year. It is brilliant, though so complex it is hard to know where to begin with it. I'll emphasise I didn't find it difficult to read - Garner's too skilled to lumber us with heavy prose - but it is difficult to understand.

I'll try to assemble some thoughts on it. Incidentaly, I gave it ***** for all its incomprehensibility.

13th Aug 2009, 10:25
I know that when I was 15 my first confusion was distinguishing the three plot-lines and working out who was who in the Roman section: ,Logan, Face, Magoo, Macey, Buzzard, the Cats, the Mothers.

Glad there's a fellow fan here and looking forward to your comments, lurgee.

13th Aug 2009, 11:10
It also helps, of course, if you know what a red shift is in astronomy. I didn't the first time I read it. Though knowing when I re-read it this year only reduced the TCI (Total Confusion Index) by 1%. Though it added to the BAQ (Brilliant Audacity Quotient) by 26%.

18th Jun 2013, 11:51
I am gradually working my way through watching the BBC Play for Today which did Red Shift in 1978 -


- starring a young Lesley Dunlop, and Michael Elphick amongst others.

18th Jun 2013, 13:16
Doesn't Red Shift include that strange code in the end papers? Or am I thinking about another Alan Garner book?

EDIT: Oh yes. Here's an Alan Garner website that discusses it (http://alangarner.atspace.org/code.html).

18th Jun 2013, 16:34
Yes, it does. I would never be able to work it out but thankfully someone clever did it for us people.

23rd May 2017, 11:54
Just passing through to let you know I have started reading The Weirdstone of Brisingamen to my #1 spawning. I'm loving it, he's ambivalent. Colin and Susan have just been chased by the Svarts for the first time. Great stuff. And I get to do accents.

25th May 2017, 22:54
Glad you're enjoying it, lurgee. And after that, you still have "The Moon of Gomrath" in that series. The most recent Garner - "Boneland" - is a finale to the story of Colin and Susan but a book for adults.

3rd Jul 2017, 7:17
My soon-to-be-disowned brat hummed and hawed his way through my reading of Weirdstone. I'm trying to persuade him he really wants me to read Gomrath to him. I remember it being a bit more actiony than Weirdstone.

Bought Boneland the other day. Certainly ... different.

8th Jul 2017, 13:18
I felt incredibly dim reading Boneland, though I did enjoy it. I was aware I needed probably to re-read the earlier books but I hadn't quite grasped the whole mythos type thing Garner was exploring. I really did like adult Colin as a character though. You need your brain dial turned up to maximum to pick your way through what is going on at a cosmic level.

27th Jul 2017, 10:41
Did he feel that Red Shift might have been a bit too accessible, or something?

7th Nov 2017, 5:35
Boneland is certainly strange. I was hoping that it would all turnout to be something else going on.

Still not sure what he thought he was doing with the neolithic sections.