I received an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This review is spoiler free.
Flesh of the Peach by Helen McClory
Published by Freight Books, Glasgow
I first discovered McClory’s writing through her debut collection of flash fiction, On the Edges of Vision – which won Saltire’s Debut Award. A prize well-deserved.
This, on the other hand, is the author’s first novel. I approached it rather tentatively. McClory’s writing is dense, detailed and evocative – a natural fit for short stories, snapshots and poetry. I wasn’t sure if I could handle such intensity in a novel-sized narrative. But I gave it a try.
To be frank, even after having awarded the book 4/5 on Goodreads (it’s more of a 3.5/5 for me), I still have mixed feelings about it. Most of these feelings are positive.
The prose is dense and poetic, it conjures up a myriad of feelings and landscapes (both physical and mental), that at times you really want to swat away in order to get to the meat of the plot and character. The barrage of language and imagery is so intense, in fact, that it took me a month to read. There are no fly-away sentences. Every. Single. One. Is. Packed. To. Maximum. Capacity. This is definitely not a ‘light’ book, not a so called ‘beach read’ (whatever that means). Whilst the language and imagery are the strongest aspects of this novel – they are also, often, it’s shortcoming. The language sometimes desensitizes the reader from the leading characters and from the plot, to a point where it becomes difficult to understand not only Sarah (the main character) but the story as a whole.
To draw a comparison: Flesh of the Peach is like an indulgent, rich and complex dessert – a dark chocolate melt in the middle with a ganache center spiced with smoke. You can only eat so much before the taste overwhelms you to the point of becoming bland in its intensity. It is a work to be chipped away, bit by bit, made to be savoured – each and every chapter, paragraph, sentence, phrase, word, syllable…not to be hoovered down in one go.
The characters in this novel are earthy (at times they ground together like sand on your back teeth), the sketches we see of them through Sarah’s eyes are brief but full of texture – there is no single flat surface in this book. Everything and everyone is brimming with detail, colour, depth. Nobody is likeable but you will find yourself slowly but surely relating to their imperfections, they are broken (in familiar ways) and human – just as we all are. “Hell is other people” – the name of a contemporary horror film, but also a fitting description of Sarah’s world. I would go as far as to change that to: “Hell is me, you, us.” Sarah is complex, I was often perplexed by her behaviour (even though, looking back, I feel like we have finally found an understanding). I kept dipping in and out, often losing my connection with her character. She did make a comeback (for me, personally) at the very end, where she felt more lucid and grounded (and so did the prose) because, it seems to me, she connected with her body (and the present tense) – almost like she decided to finally occupy it, for real. Unlike the beginning of the novel, where much of our time was spent in her memories and reminiscences. It felt claustrophobic. Sarah is no simpleton. There is no solution for her kind of trouble and there doesn’t need to be.
I will need to return to this book a second time to understand Sarah’s character better. It will be easier then, since I will not have to deal with the initial shock that the prose had caused me. As I read I kept pulling the novel apart for quotes, at times bookmarking entire chapters. Chipping away – bit by bit.
Good to know that, before making my mind up, I will have to re-read Flesh of the Peach again. The wait for McClory’s next book will be that much less painful when I have a re-read to look forward to!