Caught by the River

Book of the Month: Clay

Cheryl Tipp | 20th January 2013


A novel by Melissa Harrison.
Review by Cheryl Tipp.

Clay is the first novel by Melissa Harrison and right from the start I’d like to congratulate her on a fine piece of work. With strong, clear characters and a storyline that easily keeps the reader’s attention throughout, this novel sympathetically weaves together the elements of nature, individual struggle and friendship to create a narrative that focuses on the lives of people living in inner city London.

The novel is described as “an intimate and captivating portrait of four people struggling with the concrete confines of city life”. I agree with most of this statement but, for me, three main characters really stand out. TC, a sensitive young boy from a broken home; Josef, a Polish immigrant struggling to adjust to city life; and Sophia, a fiercely independent pensioner still trying to come to terms with the recent death of her husband. All three find solace in the wonder of nature, whether it be a small city park in the middle of a housing estate, an urban common or an abandoned, secret garden. Other characters come and go throughout the passage of this story but it is these three individuals that really make the novel and remain clear in one’s memory long after the book has been finished.

Wildlife is a continuous theme and it’s refreshing to read accurate descriptions of behaviour and sounds in a fictitious context rather than in a guide book. Harrison has given plenty of room for these references and obviously knows her stuff when it comes to the everyday comings and goings of London’s non-human inhabitants. I really love this aspect of Clay because many would have chosen to skip over these little details, thinking they were neither relevant nor important. It is these descriptions though that help form the framework of the story and strengthen our understanding of just why nature is so important to our protagonists.

There is something very special about wildlife and it can give us so much without asking for anything in return. There is no meanness, no spite, no cruelty in the natural world. That’s not to say that nature is an idyllic paradise where animals live in complete harmony with each other, but it just seems more straightforward and honest than the world we humans have created for ourselves. The great naturalist of our time, Sir David Attenborough, has spoken of finding solace in nature, especially in times of grief, heartache or turmoil, and Clay demonstrates this unexplainable power perfectly.

Melissa Harrison and Cheryl Tipp are among our guests at the first Caught by the River Social Club of 2013, happening this coming Tuesday in a highly reputable boozer deep in Central London. Melissa will be reading from Clay and Cheryl (along with Ian Rawes of London Sound Survey) will be conducting a London themed sound quiz. The full programme and further information on that unmissable event can be found here.

Copies of Clay are on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £13.00