Nowhere Near an Angel
by Mark Morris
Review by John Berlyne
PS Publishing Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1902880994
Date: 30 September, 2005 List Price £25.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
It's a particular fascination of mine how important the first line of novel is, in how it sets the tone of what you're going on to read. I suppose it's the first step forward on a long journey and very quickly the reader can gauge whether it's a journey worth taking. Take, for instance, my favourite first line of all, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." - Anybody? That's Orwell's 1984 and boy, did he know how to set the tone! You're instantly somewhere that's simultaneously familiar and alien, somewhere uncomfortable, somewhere "else".
I can't, hand on heart, claim that Mark Morris' excellent new novel Nowhere Near an Angel stands side by side with Orwell's great work, but certainly its opening line "I was sixteen and half years old when I decided to kill myself," ostensibly had the same effect on me as the line I quoted above. Instantly a hundred questions and curiosities flow into one's mind and you're compelled to read on. Who is making this declaration? What led them to this terrible action? If they're telling us this, what actually happened to prevent this death, etc.
Nowhere Near an Angel is written in the first person with our protagonist, Rob Swann, relating to us two parallel and equally provocative narratives - one telling us of his present troubles and one detailing the story of his youth - from which we learn that the present plot thread stems. The novel opens with his harrowing account of his abusive father and the mistreatment he suffered at his hands during his 1960/70s childhood in the north of England. This is grim stuff and easily justifies the message of the opening line of the novel. Rob's dad is a savage, petty, selfish man - a small man in many ways, and through the various accounts of the abuse Rob suffers, Morris creates a sympathetic bond between the reader and his point of view lead character. Quickly we begin to care very much about this man and we want to find out exactly how he escapes this degradation. The suicide attempt turns out to be a utter failure - but it is couched in terms of epiphany. Rob carefully sets up the circumstances of his death-to-be - he intends to drop a live radio into his bath and thus electrocute himself. However at the planned point of contact, in an ironically humorous scene, he finds the lead to be too short to reach the water. At the same time, the radio is blaring out music, a new music he's not heard before that touches the young Rob deep in his soul. The Sex Pistols have arrived on the scene, and young Rob knows instantly that Punk will provide for him the escape so desperately seeks.
Morris writes brilliantly of the birth of the London punk scene. Swann, finding himself drawn like a moth to a flame, is there right at the start - before the Pistols went all out to provoke and horrify the middle classes and Malcolm Maclaren formed his master plan of The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. We get a real sense of the raw newness of Punk, the vibrancy, the vitality, the anarchy and the violence. These new bands rip up the small clubs they play and Ron Swann is there watching and being sucked into this dark, new subculture.
Elsewhere in time, a forty-ish Swann tells of his present life, all the while alluding to the consequences of his youth. He is, we learn, a reformed character following his wayward years. Yes, he ended up in prison, and was for a while entrenched in the London's gangland violence, but he's legit now. A business man with a twenty-something son, living a quiet and respectable life. And then he meets Suzy.
She picks him up in a pub, this girl half his age and turns his life upside down. Rob spends two weeks of unabashed debauchery with this exciting young woman and then she mysteriously disappears, at which point the nightmare and the phone calls begin. Suzy begins to pick Rob's life apart, claming that she is actually his daughter and that he will pay for what he did to his mother back in his punk days. Rob however, remembers things differently. The supposed mother, Kizzy, was a siren of the punk scene who entrapped, imprisoned and tortured the young Rob, causing him torments that made the abuse he suffered from his father seem like a fairytale. But Suzy doesn't believe him and she sets about a plan to destroy him and everything he's worked for.
Nowhere Near an Angel is not an obvious horror novel, though Stephen Gallagher in his introduction quite rightly states that it is a novel that only a born horror writer could produce. Morris gives us a world of dark violence that sucks the reader in a much as it does his protagonist. It's a tidily plotted piece, direct, economical and very, very compulsive. He stacks problem upon problem on to Rob Swann, driving him into ever tighter corners and forcing him to make ever more difficult decisions and it's impossible for the reader not to dragged along. And yet, we know what Rob is capable of and there lingers in our minds a doubt, just a tiny doubt, that his version of his history might just be a little too subjective. This is brilliant ingredient to the story and thus this is novel you'll find hard to put down. You simply have to sweat it out with poor Rob Swann, suffering with him at each new twist and turn of his sorry fate.
Consequently, there is much here to impress. The story and style is reminiscent of the best of Iain Banks' mainstream fiction - particularly novels like The Crow Road and Complicity - which display acts of violence that though unpalatable, nevertheless ensnare and fascinate the reader. I think though that Morris's plotting here is better than Banks - the sense of revelation is beautifully handled, a series of drapes being pulled back to eventually reveal a climax and pay off that makes our journey entirely worthwhile. Nowhere Near a Angel is thus a thriller, a mystery, a memoir, a horror and ultimately, an a very satisfactory read indeed.