Buzz: Praised by George Saunders and Kamila Shamsie. Vogue's debut novelist to watch 2018.
There are moments when Peach is stunningly realistic; the raw sensations capture a pure essence of trauma. But this is far from a realistic book. To read and enjoy it you need to be prepared to embrace the bizarre, the surreal and the downright ridiculous.
It’s a book of impressions, and language. The first line tells you, inescapably, that we’re setting aside convention. “Thick stick sticky sticking wet ragged wool winding round the wounds...” This novella is dense with alliteration, assonance, repetition and rhythm, and it shifts and slips around.
The best way to explain it is with examples, so here’s another: “The blotches blind me. I walk blind by Green’s side. Blind side. Blindsided. and I close my eyes seeing as I can’t see anyway. The orange blotches pin themselves to the inside of my eyelids. Pretty sun. Set. Scent. he’s holding my hand but I follow his scent and the snapping sound of his legs.” I would happily paste endless quotes.
I was worried the poetic language would make it hard work, but it’s actually surprisingly readable. The language is the tool, not the focus, here; and it works wonderfully to reveal Peach’s altered reality.
Peach is the central character. When the book opens she has just suffered a devastating sexual assault, and through the course of the story she struggles to deal with the physical and emotional impact of that. Desperate, but unable, to confide in someone, and haunted — either figuratively or literally — by her attacker. It’s not exactly clear which.
Because working out what’s actually happening in Peach is not that simple. Reality in the novel is fragile. Her impressions are powerful and confused and often the impression on the reader is powerful yet confused too. You can never quite be certain if the things she reports seeing and hearing are real. Her parents are self-obsessed and oblivious, but would they really not notice a profoundly injured daughter? They greet her happily, just after she has described at least some visible injuries: “My eyelids are fat. Swollen. Swollen black from the slap.”
Then there’s the the surreal, metaphorical way describes people. She sees/experiences/describes her boyfriend, Green, as a tree, her attacker, Lincoln, as a sausage, and her baby brother is a made of jelly and dusted with icing sugar.
Sometimes this works brilliantly. As a vegetarian, it makes sense that her attacker is perceived as meat, and her loving boyfriend is the safe haven of a tree. You can imagine her emotions are so powerful towards these two, that her clouded impressions overwhelm reality; the metaphors a coping mechanism following the rape. But other times it didn’t work for me. When we have babies made of jelly and teachers made of custard, it dilutes that power. It feels like she’s always seen people this way, trauma or no, and that's when it slips into the ridiculous.
Then there’s the suggestion that these are not metaphors at all. As author Emma Glass said in a recent interview: “I wanted it to be strange.” Albeit with a certain inconsistency. Peach is a peach, but all her human body parts are there, Green is a tree, but he has branch arms and trunk body, Mr Custard and Lincoln, seem entirely custard and sausage. With faces.
But this is an experimental book, so perhaps it doesn’t need to be entirely consistent, or hit every ball straight. It’s as free-wheeling as Peach’s own unstoppable imagination. The blurb for the book features a quote from Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders: “Her fearlessness renews one's faith in the power of literature.” And it’s that fearlessness which makes this book special. It asks questions about what a book can be, what language you can use, who gets to filter the way you see the world, even who says what’s real and what isn’t. It doesn’t need to answer each of these questions perfectly, and it doesn’t. But perhaps asking them is enough.
Published: 11th January 2018, Bloomsbury Circus.