(The review format is stolen from lifeonmagrs.)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
Book Pot or Personal Choice?
Personal choice, and one of a small handful of books in the last six months that has not been part of my re-read project. Some further context is probably necessary: I had already read segments of this novel as pieces in progress when I studied on the MMU Novel-writing Masters programme several years ago. I gave up the program after a year, but Kerry completed it (with a distinction, according to the bio in the book) and The Black Country, the novel I read parts of, was deservedly picked up for publication by Salt.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I read it in one sitting, actually — it helps that it’s short, but as one other review says, it is a book that really begs to be read in one go. And yes, it absolutely did work for me. It was an unusual reading experience actually, seeing sections I remember reading out of order in the context of the full novel, and realising how artfully certain mysteries that we students quizzed her about at the time were laced throughout. (It also raised certain questions about the validity of the course as a whole, given how different the writing seemed as a book to when we had it as pieces to critique, but that’s a whole different, and probably very thorny, issue.) Kerry’s writing was always excellent, but reading the whole novel gave me a chance to appreciate both her control as a writer over a larger narrative, and the stifling atmosphere she maintains from start to finish.
What is the book about and what genre would you say it is?
The Black Country centres around Harry and Maddie, a dysfunctional barely-couple who meet the mysterious Jonathan Cotard at a reunion. On the way home, something terrible occurs, and things begin to unravel from there.
Literary thriller is perhaps the best descriptor; other reviews have likened it to Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train (perhaps the book should have been called The Black Country Girl for maximum marketability), but that implies a certain degree of calculated slickness that doesn’t quite fit The Black Country. Instead, the primary motor of the book is the deeply fractured relationships at its heart, rather than the melodramatic events-in-motion, and it’s precisely that claustrophobic, elusive (and deeply unreliable, as the book is narrated by a phantom third person) atmosphere that sets it apart from those comparisons.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
A big massive fuck-off surprise, that’s what. The ending is divisive, judging by reviews, but I’m firmly on-side with it. From picking over pieces of this in seminars, I had no clue. I never got to see where the book was ultimately headed, but I absolutely had not pictured it’s sudden third act veer into vicious domestic horror. If the preceding 140 pages weren’t grubby enough (and I mean that in the best way possible), the ending more than locks that down. I will say no more, because spoilers.
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
There was a section of The Black Country I’d read in the MA years that I always deeply admired, and after reading the full book, its still a section that stands out. Harry’s secret is an affair with a schoolgirl he sees every day at a bus-stop, and the scene in which this finally occurs, and its emotional aftermath, have always stuck with me as a bravura piece of writing. A short quote from that section is below.
Give me a good quote:
“He says he would admit that everything she, this girl, had said suddenly felt alien, everything they had done was undone, disintegrated. He says he’d confess he just wanted her to get out and close the door, but she stayed and clung onto him and there was a cheesiness about her skin – something he hadn’t noticed before. Little black smudges of mascara had collected in the corner of her eyes and her lips looked bluish in the failing light. And to him, she suddenly looked like that young girl tracing hearts into the air.”
Is it available today?
Available now from Salt Publishing, and in all good bookshops (as they say.)