Caught by the River

Lost Property

Sophie McKeand | 18th May 2019

Lost Property, newly published by Atlantic Books, sees Laura Beatty (author of CBTR touchstone Pollard), roadtrip through 10,000 years of civilisation. Sophie McKeand reviews.

Given the politically tumultuous times we live in, there is, absolutely, an increased yearning for our writers to make some sense of the overbearing darkness we are currently stumbling blindly through. We need them to provide some glimmers of insight that might explain this train we have thrown ourselves under with such hubris. One such work is Lost Property, Laura Beatty’s latest book, which offers a creative kaleidoscope through which we might better understand the history of this political dissonance ringing out across the nation. When we first meet Beatty, she and her partner Rupert are packing their worldly belongings into storage to temporarily migrate in a campervan from London to the Greek island of Syros. Lost Property is the book fashioned from this journey across landscapes: physical, metaphorical and historical. Darted through with politics, memoir, historical exploration, poetic metaphor, nature writing and magical-realism, Beatty shapes these travelling moments into a magnifying glass through which to better examine the social, economic and historical contexts that have dragged Britain to the crisis we are in today.  

One of Beatty’s undeniable strengths is her description of place. Poetic prose blossoms with delicate, artistic lines that mirror the work: ‘opening like pale butterflies under the sun’. These generous, illustrative words continue throughout the book, such as with the alliance-shifting Menton, ‘the little medieval town clinging to its rock stares into the water, where its pastel, patchwork, reflection stares back and says nothing.’ Of Bosnia she writes, ‘all around, the wood-clad hills are hazed with light like the pile on a pelt, as though in a hurry the mountains had thrown a fur cape about their own shoulders on their way to the horizon.’ Her descriptions are equally captivating when revealing historical facts unearthed during nightly trawls through the internet on campsite WiFi. These characterisations are Crown Jewels that beautifully embellish the book, ‘…at their centre, a medieval duke, expensive in black from head to toe, like a pinnacle himself, pointed, and articulated like an ant. Only his face gives him away as human: pale, under a top-heavy scrumple of black velvet… He is Philip the Good.’

There are lines in this book I feel a deep resonance with – ‘I have fallen out of love with my country’ – because I confess to having similar pangs of confusion over who I share a country with these days and what exactly their motives are. But other elements of the book jar awkwardly. During the introduction our protagonist is assaulted by a stinky, peg-toothed ‘bag-lady’, BritAnnia. I understand Beatty’s intent – the fall of the great British Empire – but I’m not convinced by this representation of our current situation. Beatty is right to demonstrate that Britain is no longer a colonial behemoth – ‘she said something incoherent about slaves and waves,but Forbes magazine’s recent headline, ‘London Beats New York As World’s Leading Wealth Centre’, proves that we are neither decrepit nor destitute and perhaps I’d have liked a bit more analysis on why we feel so poor when we are clearly not.

Our journey now underway; we hurtle across France. Maybe because I’m slow-travelling through Europe in a van (with my partner and two rescue hounds), and have been since November 2017, the speed of some events, such as the WWI descriptions at the Thiepval Memorial to The Missing of The Somme, feels alien. ‘Shreds of men and animals and trees are hurled into the sky and fall huddled back, mingled in an equality of destruction.’The power of this language is unmistakable; this is riveting, captivating writing; my head is spinning, my heart leaking everywhere since Beatty just cracked open my rib cage and gave this essential organ a good pummelling.
I need time to recover.
Or perhaps this perfectly illustrates how quickly we forget.

I want to say here that I feel the publisher, Atlantic Books, has done a disservice to our writer by categorising Lost Property as psychological fiction/fiction because this makes me question the authenticity of the journey made.I did enquire, and was told that yes, Beatty made the journey to Greece in a campervan with her partner, so I’ve reviewed the book accordingly. In which case, memoir or even creative nonfiction would seem like a more fitting home. Robert Macfarlane, Rebecca Solnit and Jay Griffiths all use the creative imagination to impart intuitive biographical insights stitched throughout with pertinent historical or political context connected with beautifully wild or bucolic settings, and if a book is trying to do something more, then that ‘something more’ has to improve either the writing or the narrative.

That this book resides in the liminal space between fact and fiction is not the issue – the issue is if the blurring of the two strengthens or weakens the finished work. Where Lost Property is concerned, this beautifully written, compelling book oscillates between excitingly innovative, politically pertinent and occasionally frustrating. The well-used idiom, poetic licence, exists. Beatty has used it liberally. And why not? Stories have been created to communicate facts for as long as humans have devised languages, and the journey of a writer is as equally rewarding when exploring the internal landscapes as external. RS Thomas championed this process in the wonderful poem ‘Groping’:

The best journey to make
is inward. It is the interior
that calls. Eliot heard it.
Wordsworth turned from the great hills
of the north to the precipice
of his own mind, and let himself
down for the poetry stranded
on the bare ledges.

He might have also questioned Beatty on her use of the colonialist translation of Owain Glyndŵr’s name. Especially as Glyndŵr fought so hard for Welsh independence.

Which brings us to these delightful, historical cornerstones. When we are introduced to the characters-from-history in their own settings, their presence makes sense and the book is stronger for this inclusion. James Joyce sat drinking breakfast wine in Trieste having the epiphany, ‘I am a nation’ is joyful in its anarchic insight. Added to this, the discovery of the fifteenth-century poet, Christine de Pizan, who wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, ‘an imaginary city which she peopled with famous women from the past, mythical as well as real’,is an inspired find that offers some context for Beatty’s ambition with Lost Property. But teleporting the likes of Joan of Arc and 1960s French gangster Jacky le Mat into the campervan fills the book with a thick, disorientating fog, a real pea-souper, and the bewilderment ratchets up a notch when they start conversing with our protagonist and her partner (as well as each other).

Beatty’s words are visceral and heartfelt when writing about war: ‘Won’t we change … now that it is no longer possible to avoid the knowledge that we are mostly waging war on people who are just like us?’And later, visiting Sarajevo, we are reminded through a friend of Beatty’s brother – whose name is not disclosed for reasons provided through an imagined conversation with Chekhov, ‘don’t put the names of people you actually know into your stories,’ (stories?) -that the city was subjected to the longest siege in the history of modern warfare.
‘Europe… is a noble idea that was built on the premise of peace, which would grow naturally out of economic interdependence… Peace is its goal. What will happen if it comes apart?’
This statement makes me want to reach out across the page and shake Beatty’s brother’s friend’s hand, but does the blurring of fact and fiction here undermine the words’ power and sentiment? I would argue yes.

Beatty is right to challenge writers to offer new perspectives and insights when she laments, ‘I thought writing was there to throw light on the way we are, so that the way we are could change.’And she is depressingly correct when she continues: ‘…change hasn’t happened, or something else has taken over, because look, our dystopias seem to be coming true and now our eyes are too tired, or too dark with imagined disaster, to protest.’ Perhaps we writers need to shoulder some of the blame for this. Perhaps we’ve lost sight of the great responsibility we hold within the public sphere, and it is time for writers to be the standard-bearers of truth, especially in this era of Fake News where fiction is being touted as fact every day.

Regardless of all of this, Lost Property is a wonderfully poetic journey. The gem of sagacity that remains with me is found early in the book in a quote from DH Lawrence:
 ‘Sometimes, snakes can’t slough. They can’t burst their old skin. Then they go sick and die inside the old skin, and nobody ever sees the new pattern.’
I hope we find the courage to evolve, that we grow into a new skin, because Beatty is right, change is absolutely necessary, and writers are needed to aid this transformation by unveiling new skins and patterns through the authenticity of our words, and the humanity in our vision.


Lost Property (Atlantic Books, hardback, 272 pages) is out now and available here, priced £14.99.

You can follow Sophie McKeand’s OUTSIDER blog here.