Nicolo's Gifts by Neil Ayres (Bluechrome, £7.99)

reviewed by Steve Redwood

One of the amazing things about Nicolo's Gifts is that it was written when the author was only 22-23 years old.

In some ways, this shows. Especially at the beginning, there is a disjointedness which, though it may have been intended, is still, I feel, a mistake, as it doesn't take into account enough the reader's difficulties. The early parts of the book jump from scene to scene, and from character to character (sometimes with irritating flashbacks about people in the lives of characters we haven't yet become at all interested in). This makes it unnecessarily hard to 'get into' the novel. Moreover, there are scenes which can indeed be seen to have relevance by the end of the book (such as the boys taunting the 'spastic' in the Prologue), but others necessitate a few gigabytes of memory. An example: on p. 12 a man leaves his son, saying, 'Be a good boy, Craig'; the next reference to Craig is on p.183!

But the book also reveals a most impressive maturity, originality, and vision.

Once we have got past the confused opening--once the cast is finally assembled--we have a rich and moving novel, as the author explores the intricacies of their interconnected lives. As we start to know the characters, the overall technique of indirection and sudden transitions, even when they surprise (Matthew after the separation from Alice, for example), really works.

Taking key events--or, more often than not, the sequels to key events--Ayres gives us a series of snapshots of twenty years in the lives and loves (and no-loves) of a group of people who are both ordinary and extraordinary. The characterisations, the interactions between the characters, and the changes that time brings, are brilliantly portrayed, the leaps of time and viewpoint allowing for all the more impact. For me, the most convincing characters are Nicolo himself, having to deal both with the gift of love and the curse of a devastating illness (which may or may not be a 'punishment' for an early crime), and Alice, the woman who cannot learn how to love others or herself, but there is depth too to the portraits of the huge Russian, the rock for others who is strangely vulnerable himself, the sexually ambiguous Matthew, the 'rebel' Jude...

There is precision of visualisation: Sandra waiting at the bus stop on the opposite side of the road to the cemetery for over half an hour.... 'She sits alone on the swinging red plastic seat on the bus stop and the ridges in the plastic dig into her rain-soaked legs.' Or: '...the raven laughed too, a low cackling sound, like the noise of stiff bark being stripped from a tree.'

There are countless moments of acute perception: Alice 'eats her late supper, finishing to lay her head against his chest. This is not a moment of intimacy: she is ignoring him.' Or: 'Hiding in the past is a half-life. Each remembrance an altered echo of some lost veracity.' Jude permits Mathew his unicorn 'in its clearing in the forests of the fantasylands' in the comic strip, maybe because of what he has taken away from him.

There are images that serve as refrains, binding together the diverse elements of the novel. Sandra and her sparrow, Pavel and his bears and wolves, Alice and the extinct feline of her dreams ... and, of course, Nicolo Ravini, the raven itself. The parable of the raven towards the end of Part One is foreshadowing at its best, when the fallow deer believes that 'if he kept completely still, ... he would emit no scent and make no noise'--but at the end of the novel the hounds do discover his scent ...; and, much later, Jude tattoos Nicolo's back, and he notices that 'the feathers from my back have been torn from me in some vicious ritual...'

There is the daring experiment of one chapter being a poem.

There is a contrapuntal story about a rock star and his angst (with some powerful writing on the effect his music has), giving a formal elegance to the novel.

There are detailed descriptions of setting, and reflections on modern life, on the lack of values in inner city areas, 'the lazy detritus' held back by 'cowardice and a lack of vision... a deep-rooted avarice for ease'.

There are moving descriptions of Nicolo's illness, and his reactions to it at different times: the 'ever-present dual threats of guilt and resentment'. Or his instant dislike of a sympathetic waitress 'I would not have given these words a second thought before this condition had taken hold of me, before it had labelled me.' And there are scenes of what-is-not as well as what-is: 'a tired yet tender smile shows on lips that are pink with blood and the sudden flush of an excitement unexpected. This is something that will not happen.'

Above all, there are examinations (sometimes oblique and understated, sometimes detailed in a rush of words and images, tales and dreams) of love and friendship, of gain and loss, of understanding and lack of understanding, of joy in creativity and its opposite, of grandeur and pettiness...of life and death.

In short, if I may appropriate a Gerard Manley Hopkins quote, once we are really into the novel, the brightness of the book ' will flame out, like shining from shook foil'. The shaking of foil is a particularly apposite image, as this is precisely the technique Ayres uses, giving us significant 'flashes' in the lives of these people.

It is these details, these perceptions, these unexpected depths, that make this novel so real and fresh, and Neil Ayres a writer to watch out for.

(In passing, there is yet another Ayresian raven--one you would NOT wish to meet on a cold day, let alone a dark night--on this very site. See 'The Tool' under 'Story Store'.)

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