Desert Isle Keeper
It would be easy label Alexis Hall’s debut novel Glitterland as literary fiction masquerading as romance. The language he uses – his metaphors are often show stoppingly gorgeous – and his narrator, a bipolar depressive – beg to be read by those who dismiss genre fiction as lowly. The next time someone sniffs derisively at romance novels, rather than roll my eyes and pray for patience, I plan to say, “Ah, I see you haven’t read Glitterland. Try it. I think you’ll be impressed.” (This is clearly a better response than calling someone a judgmental prat.)
Glitterland is a romance, complete with compelling leads, steamy love scenes, and a hard-won Happy For Now ending. I liked it tremendously. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this summer and, I think, the best debut novel of the year thus far.
The narrator of Glitterland is Ash Winters and he is not a nice man. Ash is seriously mentally ill and is recovering from a fairly recent psychotic breakdown. He is also an intellectual from Britain’s upper class (he’s a Cambridge grad), a successful writer, wealthy enough to never worry about money, and a snob. He mocks everyone including himself and when he sees Darian dancing at a gay bar in Essex (Ash, who never leaves his apartment if he doesn’t have to, is there for a friend’s stag party he was unable to avoid), he labels him as a risible rube.
He was a ridiculous creature. A vulgar, glittering pirate of a man, all jewellery and fake tan, gold glinting in his ears, on his fingers and round his wrists. His dark hair gleamed with product and had been painstakingly teased into a quiff that defied taste, reason, and gravity.
Much to his dismay, Ash is attracted to this ludicrous person. Two things amaze Ash about the want he feels. Ash is “a muted thing” and hasn’t felt much of anything since he was discharged. And to feel lust for something – for Ash doesn’t see Darian as anything more than an object of desire – so definitely of the masses is, to Ash, humiliating. To be fair, Ash defines almost everything he does as self-destructive.
Darian sees Ash watching him, grins up at him, and pulls himself up to the balcony Ash is standing on like “the world’s most ill-suited Romeo.”
“I gotta say, babes,” he said in a nasal Essex whine, “you’re giving me sutcha bedroom look.”
I stared down into his face, so close to mine. Babes? And, dear God, that accent.
“Well,” I heard myself say, “play your cards right and I might consent to do more than look.”
“Omigod, you talk like the Queen.”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“Are you in parliament?”
I had the feeling I’d lost control of the conversation.
“What? No. I’m a writer.”
“Omigod, really?” He sounded both impressed and bewildered, as if I’d said I went fishing on the moon.
This interchange, where Darian sees Ash as an educated enticing man, and Ash sees Darian as an Essex idiot, is repeated again and again in the book.
Ash does go home that night with Darian for a furtive one-night stand, and afterward as Darian – whose name Ash didn’t bother to remember – sleeps, Ash runs out of the house in a panic, already feeling shame and despair. He calls his closest friend Niall, who – yet again – comes to rescue Ash, and Ash, once back in his apartment, hopes to never see his hook-up again.
Darian, however, has other plans. He shows up at a book signing for Ash’s latest book, a best selling crime novel called Through a Glass Darkly (its hero is named Rik Glass) and asks Ash to dedicate the book “To the geeza what I slept wif and then done a runner on in the middle of the night, making ’im feel like a right slapper’?” Ash chooses instead to sign it “To a bloke I fucked.” Darian points out that Ash isn’t a very nice person and Ash tells him he’s right and then invites Darian up to his flat for a round of sex. One round turns into several and the two spend several days together during which Ash feels something akin to happiness. The feeling terrifies him. For Ash, happiness has often led to the sort of mania that leads to a harrowing crash. And yet when Darian, who is pursuing a career as a male model, asks Ash to come see him in the Essex Fashion Week Show, Ash demurs. Darian leaves making it clear that if Ash wants to see him again, he’d best come to the show in Essex.
It’s clear though Ash has the education, the money, and the career, his life veers close to the stuff of nightmares. Ash is mentally ill. He’s attempted suicide in the past, has destroyed almost every relationship he has, and struggles every day, with the help of a set of pills designed to keep him safe, to not sink into desolation. For him,
Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.
Life is different for Darian. He’s an essentially, determinedly happy guy who sees life though a serotonin-filled gaze. He likes himself, has good friends, a caring grandmother, and finds joy with ease. If there is a flaw in Glitterland, it’s in the effortlessness of Darian’s emotional life. Darian is almost too good to read true and his easy acceptance of Ash’s very real problems treads on the facile. Glitterland, though, is not a happily ever after story where Darian’s care for Ash cures Ash. By the novel’s end, Ash and Darian have found a place where, together, they’re going to try to make a go at a love. It’s an almost happy for now ending and, in acknowledging their relationship’s limitations, Mr. Hall gives them – and the reader – something that feels real and true.
I would be remiss if I didn’t praise Mr. Hall’s prose. As rendered through Ash’s narration, Mr. Hall writes beautifully, movingly, and with wry humor. Ash’s describes his suicide attempt where he slashed his arms as, “old lunacy…. I thought there were lost words trapped in my skin and I was releasing them back into the world. Like a flock of phoenix.” His university years were “A blur of gold and green, the scent of old books, the slide of a stranger’s body against mine.” The night sky “was a bruised swirl of blue and indigo, the air sharp-edged with salt.” Mr. Halls’s words are unrushed, his sentences given the space to unfurl and steal a reader’s heart. In short, it rocks.
Glitterland held my attention from the first scene to the last. It gets a slightly awed A- from me.