“The small crevice that formed the only entrance showed no evidence of the light which must be entering through the other gaps in the stones. It was black as if opening directly into the depths of the earth; an entrance to the underworld, curiously still and silent, as though condensed with age into a heavier mass from its surroundings, looking as though one might cross the threshold of ordinary matter by going through it. If she stared at it long enough she would never be able to go in, or it would never lead into the small space inside the Quoit, but would give way beneath her and leave her falling into blackness, into a kind of frozen inertia, pressured as if by prehistoric earth shifts and lava bubbles …
… The light of the flash bounced on and off the stones, as Jessica forced herself to climb in. …”
The Curve of the Land, the first novel of poet and author of The Return of King Arthur, Diana Durham, follows the journey of a woman in contemporary society seeking to reconnect to an ancient land and share in its spiritual topography. In that sense the reader will encounter a sort of cartographic fiction, a map with ley lines of stones that present a yet-to-be-writ scroll to the mysteries. Indeed, Durham serves up something of her intent in the novel’s introduction:
“All down the western flank of Britain, where the land branches and frays out into the sea as if trying to blend with the salty waves, are found large numbers of ancient megaliths. In the Highlands and Lake District, down the rocky backbone of the Pennines, across the Border Country, Wales and the south west peninsula, standing stones, stone circles and dolmen survive from a time before record. Though the grandest structures of Stonehenge, Avebury, the Rollrights are found in the plains and meadow lands of the west country, nowhere is there a greater concentration or variety of megaliths than in the furthest western tip of Cornwall…”
Set in 1980s Britain against the backdrop of ecological crisis, The Curve of the Land is a circumspect fiction about our modern relationship with the Earth, which in this case is experienced through the landscapes of western Britain. A 2015 Reader approaches through the lens of yet new environmental crises – not just the changing physical conditions of the Earth but also the shifting priorities of its politicians and educators. Thus, the stones are root-points of history – megaliths to mark something primal and ancient – even though surrounded by the trappings of modern civilization. The novel’s main protagonist is one of us – well intentioned, origin-seeking, yet slightly at odds with environmental flux and a landscape of shifting secrets. An ardent but unfulfilled activist, she joins a tour of megalithic sites hoping to find renewal from relationship burn-out and a sterile work environment. The encounter is deeply personal, as again proposed in the book’s opening:
“Legends and rumours about these megaliths are as plentiful as the stones themselves. The giants built them, some of the stone circles are maidens turned to stone for dancing on a Sunday, many sites are entrances to the underworld, they are the haunt of spirits or ghosts or worse, lights can often be seen around them, from the faery folk, or the dead. Most of these stories are embedded in the distorting amber of folklore. Any strange encounters or experiences at these places are ephemeral – they exist only as one person’s story, non-verifiable, nonrecordable. Occasionally an account is collected in a book, even reported in a local newspaper, especially if the eye-witness is deemed reliable…”
Readers will find that the characters on the tour are a good cross-section of the way ‘new age’, occult and mystical threads got grafted on to the more intellectual or ‘respectable’ British stock, and Durham pens eccentric cameos of people and comic situations that will ring familiar. The action of the novel then oscillates between this clever assortment of legitimate as well as faux or contrived personalities. As with any community people are differently acclimatised – much like old stones in a circle.
“She gazed around at the ring of broken stones. They were uneven in height, some almost seven foot high, others barely grass-covered mounds. The limestone, gnarled and holed by age and weather, formed easily into grotesque features and twisted expressions as she ran her eyes over their pock-marked surfaces…”
Stones themselves are often seen as mute, lifeless, even representative of a cold and immovable heart. But standing stones, mysteriously compiled by the ancients, would seem to offer a script – something like Shakespeare’s “sermon in stones.” They are our most durable monument, often marking life’s enduring rituals as well as lives passing. A saying attributed to Pericles states – “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” Jessica, as all those that dare heed the whispers of the past, must confront the mysterious atmosphere of the stones and embrace the book’s final shamanic climax in the wilds of West Penwith, Cornwall. Skylight Press is thrilled to publish The Curve of the Land in hopes that many will embark on such a journey.