Sunday 21 February 2016

Review by Jonathan Taylor of "The Black Country" by Kerry Hadley-Pryce

In Kerry Hadley-Pryce's disturbing and remarkable novel, The Black Country, everything is relative: all facts, all actions, all truths are relative to their observers. Everything is in the conditional tense, in quotation marks; and all the overlapping and conflicting narratives are no more than subjective testimonies, a matter of "he says" or "she says." All the characters are telling their own truths and half-truths and lies: when Maddie tries to tell her husband Harry about the past "it might have sounded true," even though there were "some bits she'd edit out"; and when Harry tries in turn to tell Maddie about his crime, "he'd got it, all of it, all the words he was ready to reveal, to uncloak. Some to hide, some to reveal." Words, explanations, narratives hide and reveal at the same time, making the novel a mass of semi-revelations and competing explanations, none of which quite explain, none of which quite uncloak the "whole" truth. All the characters involved are themselves, in a sense, pseudo-novelists, editing, reshaping, and failing to tell their stories.

Ultimately, The Black Country asks what "all this explanation on top of explanation" amounts to: "Do we really believe them?," asks the  first-person narrator towards the end. Do we really believe any of them - including the mysterious first-person narrator himself? The Black Country's answer is profound and unsettling; what the novel uncloaks above all is the terrifying darkness at the heart of relativism: layer after layer of provisional narratives are brought into question, peeled away, discarded, to reveal a still-darker narrative layer beneath. At the heart of it all this provisionality, this conditionality, this contingency is not the absolute truth that we might expect of a first-person narrator who seems to command all the other perspectives - but something terrifying, something very black indeed. 

About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is author of the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015), and Entertaining Strangers, and the memoir Take Me Home (Granta, 2007). His website is

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