I live in my own mind. I always have done. For as long I can remember, I’ve been lost in thought, contemplating big ideas or personal anxieties. It’s this mindset which continues to attract me to urban fantasy novels, of the like which Christopher Fowler and Neil Gaiman are famous for. For the record, I love Christopher Fowler – at the least the books I’ve read of his anyway.
Just recently I finished a novel by him called Calabash, and found it surprisingly relatable.
Lead character, Kay Goodwin and I have a lot in common it seems. Kay is a cocky 16 year old with an imagination the size of the seaside resort he inhabitants. Cole Bay, his hometown, is rundown and desolate – not exactly the kind of place you’d want to raise a child. The people who live there are just as dead inside, and it frustrates Kay immensely. It’s the early ’70s – the hippie years have past and economic strife is rampant in Britain.
Kay dreams of escaping, but, without a decent job or education, has nowhere to go. His parents Pauline and Bob are super boring. Bob spends most of his time on the sofa watching crappy TV, while Pauline cooks and cleans. You get the picture. Kay’s older brother, Sean, rides a motorbike and is a bit of jack-the-lad. Yet, for some reason, he’s shacked up with a doormat for a girlfriend.
Kay couldn’t be more different from his family. School does little to engage his mind, and he instead chooses to learn about ancient civilisations. Distant lands liberate his empty existence and fill him with a sense of purpose. Maybe if he focuses hard enough they might actually come to life, he thinks. We’ve all done this as child. Dreamed up some imaginary place and pretended to be part of it. Only difference is, Kay discovers such a world.
Calabash is everything Cole Bay isn’t: bright, bountiful and rich in resources. Its mighty kingdom has the makings of a once great earth nation, even if it does give the impression of being imaginary.
Curiously, Kay is the only person able to reach it. To do so, he must pass through a strange opening on the pier reminiscent of the Twilight Zone.
As Calabash unravels itself, Kay realises that it’s not quite what it seems. What’s his purpose there, why do they need his help, who else knows about Calabash? Before long, he’s in too deep and has no choice but to fight his way out.
Calabash, like a lot of Fowler’s other work, is beautifully written and atmospheric. Long, flowing sentences run-on seamlessly and allow for detailed descriptions of place. By constantly interchanging between Calabash and Cole Bay, Fowler achieves the desired effect of making us feel lost somewhere in the middle, not knowing what to believe.
My main takeaway from the book was this – focus too much on what you can’t see, and you’ll miss what’s right in front of you. The very things we dream about are often rooted in reality – sometimes it just take the right pair of eyes to spot them.
I would highly recommend Calabash to anyone looking for a bit of an escapist read.