“Stones”, the impressive first novel from author Polly Johnson, deals with some brave and unusual themes.
The story is narrated by sixteen-year-old Coo (Corinne), a troubled teen with plenty of reason to be that way. Dealing with the death of her older brother Sam, a violent alcoholic, and her painfully mixed feelings about both him and his death, Coo is struggling to make sense of the world and her place in it, if indeed she has one at all. She feels invisible at school – on the rare occasions when she turns up – and bitterness towards her parents who, she feels, failed to protect her from her brother’s violent rages. Indeed she feels herself to be trapped inside a glacier on which nothing outside makes any impression. Visits to the “Shrink Woman” – an expensive psychologist to whom her parents, caught up in their own grief, appear to have mainly (and unsuccessfully) delegated Coo’s emotional care – seem like a waste of time. Wandering the streets and the stony beach alone, Coo is somehow drawn to Banks, an alcoholic homeless man, and forms an unlikely and unusual friendship with him. She also befriends Joe, a boy of her own age who has troubles of his own.
The story builds slowly, layer upon layer, but is no less gripping for that, moving on as events happen to or are precipitated by Coo before ultimately building to a perhaps inevitable climax. The tone is fairly dark – as befits the subject matter – but the book is extremely well written and note-perfect throughout.
There’s something shocking in Coo, a middle-class teenage girl (her mother owns an antiques shop, for goodness sake) befriending and becoming part of a group – Banks and his friends – which most people would probably cross the road to avoid, but Johnson skilfully shows us the humanity beneath the unprepossessing exterior.
The narrative of Coo is very compelling and her voice, personality and situation comes through clearly. She appears to be in a self-destructive downward spiral and to an outsider the reasons for some of her behaviour may seem easy to interpret, but as another character points out, sometimes these are the hardest to see. Coo is young, naïve, socially isolated and frighteningly vulnerable, although – like sixteen-year-old girls everywhere – unaware of this fact.
The story is set in Brighton; I’ve never been there, but a strong and atmospheric sense of place emerges from the narrative and I could clearly picture the surroundings, especially the beach where many events of the story take place.
The characters are all extremely well drawn and believable – Banks and the other homeless men are particularly memorable, perhaps because this is a group of people rarely dealt with in fiction, certainly not in a sympathetic way. Johnson’s portrayal is realistic and does not shy away at all from harsh and unpleasant realities, but also manages to hold on to an awareness of these characters as people with their own histories. I would have liked to know more, though, about the aggressive, clearly mentally ill character of Alec , who presents a menacing figure throughout – although as we are seeing everything through Coo’s eyes our knowledge is filtered through her perceptions. An account of some incidents from the viewpoint of other characters would be interesting to read.
In an interesting post at the Authonomy blog, Johnson states that while the novel is not autobiographical, many of the incidents did occur in real life, and the story is clearly informed by her experience of her own brother’s alcoholism – although we never meet Sam in the book and his character only emerges through the memories of his sister, Coo (and, to a much lesser extent, what other characters say about him).
This is a very engaging, well-written read which I would certainly recommend, and look forward to future work from this author. It’s aimed at young adults, or new adults, or whatever we’re supposed to be calling them these days, but its appeal will certainly not be restricted to this age group. I enjoyed it very much.
I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.