First published in August 2017.
Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’. Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’
Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne. In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother. She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with. The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.
When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:
‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.
The question was vague because she herself was vague. It becomes a lyric in a city like this one. Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties. Kennedy had been everything for a while there.
… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing. Finally, after a slow dance with cancer. And long after their relationship had died.’
She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind. You are outside and you can go no further. And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’ Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.
Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences. The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times. These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange. The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative. This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.
The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her. The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been. There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.
Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms. Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people. With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together. Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise. Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.