The Unravelling by Polly Crosby

Publisher: HQ Publication Date: January 2022

It is fascinating how landscapes and where we grow up as children can stay with us as we age. How these memories of home often draw us back whether with positive association or more traumatic ones. The idea of landscape imprinting and drawing individuals homeward seems to be a central preoccupation with Polly Crosby’s novel, ‘The Unravelling.’ One of the central protagonists, Marianne Stourbridge is drawn back to her ancestral home after having been banished for sixty-three years.

This home is the fictionalised island of Dohhalund a ‘tiny island off the East Anglian Coast.’ Marianne’s home ‘Dogger Bank House’ is where she now, in old age, is confined. She employs the help of Tartelin, another central protagonist, a young woman trying to escape the world after losing her mother. A facial disfigurement means she is often faced with prejudice and initially she worries the same fate awaits her when meeting Marianne. She states, ‘perhaps I am naïve and intolerance breeds in isolated outcrops like this.’ She is there to help Marianne, a lepidopterist, to study the butterfly population. Tartelin is instructed to capture and kill the butterflies and bring them back to Marianne for study.

It becomes quickly apparent as Tartelin traverses the island that this is not an idyllic setting or a place of escape for either protagonist. The very land itself is traumatised and hurt, ‘covered in pebble and concrete, sewn together by weeds that twisted like rough stitches across its surface.’ The narrative switches between the modern perspective of Tartelin trying to work out the motivations and nuances of Marianne, who conjures up similarities with the Dickensian Miss Havisham another character unable to leave the confines of her home and unable to come to terms with the past. It then switches to Marianne as a girl in the 1950s through which we witness the reasons why her family had to eventually leave the island. These sections were poignantly done, with the child narrator not fully grasping why another girl called Nan comes to live with them at her father’s request or fully understanding the family’s uneasy relationship with the local herring girls employed by the family and who they capitalise from.

The modern-day island, through Tartelin’s perspective, is less populated in the present day. It has an eerie quality where characters appear and then disappear again, almost like a dream. Nothing stays firm or concrete. Strange animals add an element of the uncanny and like Tartelin we as readers feel confused, like we have lost our way, become unravelled. There is a sadness to the book and a fragility which is echoed in the landscape, ‘the sea is made up of unspeakable sadness.’ Each character harbours a regret they each in turn must face or else confront their own unravelling. It was interesting watching the female relationships and I felt that this was central to the light and hope the book offered. Coming to terms with the past and being brave enough to face the future was an idea that resonated strongly with me as a reader. An atmospheric, uncanny text that was eerily compelling.

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