Caught by the River

Backwards and Forwards he Walked

Will Burns | 10th February 2016

Sunrise cover Sunrise by Dominic Cooper
(Thirsty Books, ebook. 149 pages. Out now and available here.)

Review by Will Burns

The novelist with the temperament of a poet is no rarity and Dominic Cooper, whose biography also reads watch-maker, one-time aspiring Icelander and now reclusive lost-genius of English letters, is one such case. And while saying as much oneself is hardly the final word, in Sunrise, one of four novels published by Cooper in the 70s and 80s, the case is persuasively put. This is a novel unconcerned with much of what we might associate with the form (even as generous a form as it is), feeling instead like an extended meditation, and examination of one man’s inner-past, which at times seems so thin, so ghostly, as to be barely believed by the protagonist himself. And it is at constant odds with the new, physical present in which he finds himself.

Writing in the New Statesman, Ben Myers claims that this is a book more concerned with poetry than plot and this is certainly true. What little plot unfolds serves only to thrust the novel’s protagonist, Murdo Munro out into the landscape, attempting escape from a stifling domestic life and an impulsive, violent act of rejection. Cooper deploys an omniscient narrator, and the use of free indirect style, and yet the book still feels almost entirely like one long authorial interjection.

It is certainly Murdo’s voice we hear at times — it is Murdo who names the vast number of birds he sees, who names the trees, who knows the woods and the country as intimates (his life’s work has been in the woods, and this knowledge is entirely plausible). However are we really to believe that the long, elegant descriptive passages, mostly concerning the landscape and its shape, its heft, its bearing, are being rendered in the mind and words of Murdo Munro? A man who thus far in his life has lived in silent acceptance of his emotional lot? No, there is most definitely a third party at work here, one whose force is being made deliberately evident by the author. In the book’s world the linguistic and the natural rely entirely upon one another, the land, animals, birds, they exist for the reader as the author would have them, rather than Murdo. Wildlife is called into existence miles away from the action, the land is described with relish. A novelist aspiring to the purity of their form would sand down the edges of this narration, would include only details that Murdo would believably notice or physically be able to, and describe them only in the language Murdo would believably use. But Cooper’s book is aiming higher than that. In his prose, the poet’s will must be asserted. The book, then, ends up asking complicated questions about the nature of art and the natural world, about how this relationship might best truthfully be described. It is a prescient book, in these heady and urgent times for the membranous world of writing, writing about nature, and nature itself.

The natural worlds offers Murdo his only moments of true relief from the feelings he has made such a savage departure from, as well as new ones that arise, and it’s the poet’s task to match those moments for the reader, not Murdo’s. Murdo is not a scientist, he does not gain knowledge from the natural world, nor does he redemption. In fact the landscape is harsh and the elements do him harm (not least the motif of fire that punctuates the book). But the moments of transcendence he experiences on his journey all serve to salve the utter alienation that has become his existence. Alienation in his domestic life, from his wife, in his inner life, from his understanding of himself. The wild allows him to know himself again, and as readers we accept these moments through the force and beauty of Cooper’s writing. In these passages the prose lifts itself from the hard, muscular style in evidence during the phases of pure narrative, to something stranger, dreamlike and, again eschewing the kind of convention that creative writing workshops might call a rule, dripping with adjectives:

It was a startling, vibrant sound after the hours of ominous silence, growing from the lightest fingering of a drum to a moment of cavernous anger before it once again subsided…

…the first drops of rain began to fall, fat and oily,…

But as soon as the sun rose from the horizon this began to fill with a pearly brightness and everywhere there was wetness and sparkle.

And take this whole passage as an example. Murdo is asleep, there is nobody witness to what is described, and yet how grateful we are for it:

Soon after he dropped off to sleep, the first washes of grey and white light began to burgeon on the eastern skyline. All over the land animals began to shift and stir, preparing for the best hours of the day when they would go forth, hunters and hunted, to pursue their lives. A small group of goosanders rounded the Rubh’ a’ Choin, and, turning west across the current, flew fast and low over the water in the thin, pre-dawn light. On the open ground back from the shore the sheep were already at work cropping the dewy grasses, the stubble of the forest tree-tops behind them a honed outline cut against the buttery whiteness of the sky. Falling and rising in and out of sight against the light, a sparrowhawk ran the edge of the trees.

And the same again, later in the book:

Beneath the high, unblinking sun, the morning pulled slowly forwards, now still and warm, with insects and smells alike drifting on the light eddies of air while stonechat and whinchat, wheatear and pipit chased backwards and forwards over the heathers and rocks. Some way off to the south, an old dog fox trotted leisurely along the bank of a burn; in the hills beyond the loch, a heavily built wildcat settled itself down to wait in the brackens near a rabbit burrow. Just before midday, a pair of teal flew fast across the face of the sun and were soon engulfed in the sky.
These were the small dimensions of those morning hours.

The sentence immediately following this passage suggests the distance of the poetic narrator from the events of the novel. He is above them, around them, in them. In short, he is God, or the land itself.

Even from just across the water, the man who sat on the grass was a nothing, a scarcely discernible point among the vastness of the land.

There are things the book is less successful at. I cannot defend the depiction of women in the novel, most pertinently Murdo’s inner monologues about his marriage. This is a book where there are broader lines drawn than most between author and character, agreed, but this is an important element in a book that is weakened by its treatment. That said, there will be few bits of writing on landscape, on the wild, and on the human place within that wildness that match Cooper’s achievement. It is a tough, strange book, like the tough, strange man whose life it describes. And, as Murdo realises too late, the world is the better for having it back among us.

Will Burns on Caught by the River

Will is among the guests at the next Caught by the River Social Club taking place at London’s Bush Hall on Sunday 28 February. More info/tickets.