‘It was a season of communal malaise. Of narrative struggle. People looked how the seasick look at maps and dream of land. How the hungry see a wrapper, a skeleton fish and trace the edges of their own bones with a slow finger feeling morose and giddy-eyed.’
This elegant novel reads like a prose poem an ode to living in contemporary society. There’s a rhythm to the text that readers will fall into, (Prototype released readings on social media that illustrate this), the pace allows us to absorb meaning. The Boiled in Between is rich and colourful and the images it conjures are vivid, almost pungent. Helen Marten is a prize winning artist. She uses words much the way I imagine she prepares her pieces carefully selecting compatible and contrasting features that come together as a whole. Here we have lives under the microscope but nothing is simply described, ideas and actions are melded, reactions observed, tested. It feels organic, constantly challenging and thought provoking although the writing must have been meticulously arrived at. Sometimes it’s what’s between the lines that are printed that matters. Thoughts are brief, fragmentary; snippets, glimpsed, sharply observed, triggers, connections and musings. There are three voices, three perspectives that add tone and texture. The reader is left to formulate the wholeness as if the text is a touch paper. Some might question whether this is a novel at all, it’s certainly experimental, Marten employs a radical approach that isn’t so common in English literature, but there’s a thread that unites the work. Statements are made, an alternative meaning suggested, debate encouraged. The Boiled in Between invites readers to taste, to see words and their impact on the story. This is a bold fiction, questioning out understanding of the modern world, our relationship to nature, (the universe?), exploring ways of seeing, exploding by pretensions, it’s genuinely exciting, a visceral and sensory adventure in which emotions are a framing landscape.
I wrote about the things the novel talks about and deleted that, readers of this review won’t get the best sense of the work from that. Briefly, it’s about relationships, about change, dealing with the things life throws up, about mortality. The best illustration is to allow the novel to speak for itself:
‘On cold brilliant days when the geese honked overhead, he knew they mocked him. Rained laughter down at him with their goose vowels and grammar dropped somewhere across the Atlantic.’
‘I wondered if my aura of careless spiritual lethargy would be legible. If I offered as much personality and reassurance as a crumpled newspaper. The bland visitor, me, with the silly curls falling.’
‘Winds frisk me to the bone, bone thoughts, all gurgling directions and great arcs of pain and geese. Leaves fall to the ground. They know their rhythms, aided by rainwater or mud, sticking fast together, gummy stalks and green moustaches, nodding off like practiced husbands.’
The Boiled in Between captures some of the absurdity of life, the spirituality and randomness of experience. Fascinating and original, a sculptural piece.
Prototype, paperback, ISBN 9781916052062, 14/9/20
Review by Paul Burke