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Clay by Melissa Harrison

Clay (original 2013; edition 2013)

by Melissa Harrison

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Clay by Melissa Harrison (2013)

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    The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (tangledthread)
    tangledthread: There is a similar feel to the book and the cast of characters in the two books.

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Harrison's debut novel is a beautiful story of innocence and an awakening awareness of the natural world around us. TC is a young boy from a broken home who lives with his mom in a housing scheme in an unidentified UK town near a city park and commons. The green spaces are a refuge for TC, away from home and school. Others also take comfort in the green space: 78 year old Sophia Adams continues to live in a ground floor flat of Plestor Estates near the park, where her daughter Linda and son Michael were raised and where she is trying to develop an interest in nature in her granddaughter Daisy; and Josef, is a recent Polish immigrant in his 40's from a small farming community.

Told over the course of 12 months, the story follows nature's path through the seasons and slowly unfolds the stories of the various characters - TC's troubles at home and school; Josef's struggles to understand the concrete city he now lives in and its inhabitants, at times so alien from the life he knew in his native Poland; and Sophia's observations from her kitchen window of the park and the interactions she has with her daughter and granddaughter.

he main focal point of the story is the park, and it is the park that draws the characters together. As beautiful as Harrison's prose is, and as well drawn as the characters are, I found the overall story of our characters and the plot overshadowed by her lyrical descriptions of the natural world. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but may prove to be a bit of a slog for a reader more interested in the characters than the scenery. Overall, an insight-fully written story of the challenges of our modern lives and the resilience of nature to continue its own life-cycle rhythm around us.

This book was courtesy of Librarything's Early Review Program. ( )
2 vote lkernagh | Jan 13, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This was a rather enjoyable read. The writing style was wonderful and the characters were detailed and well thought-out. It is a novel about unlikely friendships and how things aren't always what they seem. I do agree with others that the prologue gave a little too much away. I think it was important to set up the plot but a little less detail would have been better. ( )
  Yells | Jan 1, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
The Prologue totally ruined this otherwise interesting novel for me. I really wish it had not been included in Clay, I think I would've enjoyed the story so much more, and been far more emotionally involved in the outcome. A shame, really, because this story about a group of people who are joined together by a "common" - a greenspace in London - was one of the more interesting character-driven stories I've read in the while. It's just that, throughout the entire novel, I kept wishing I had not read the Prologue. I suppose if YOU, dear review reader, do not read the Prologue, you will have a wonderful experience ahead of you with Clay! I envy you that! ( )
  tsaj | Dec 28, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This story takes place over a 12 month period with each chapter titled for an event on the Christian calendar, which also tend to mark the passing of the seasons. The setting for the book is an area of open land in inner city London: a run down park established in the Victorian era, a commons area bounded by road and railway, and an old oak woods that run along the embankment of the commons.

Bordering this open land is Plestor Estate, a housing development which has seen better days. It is the home of Sophia, a grandmother who raised her family on the estate and is mourning the loss of her husband who died shortly after his retirement. Her granddaughter, Daisy lives with her parents in a more gentrified area of the neighborhood. Plestor is also the home of TC, a nine-going-on-ten year old boy who has recently witnessed the breakup of his family and his father's departure which feels more like a disappearance. Completing the quartet of main characters is Jozef, a polish immigrant whose farm, handed down through generations, was lost due to EU development .

TC, Sophia, and Jozef share the experiences of recent loss, a sense of dislocation, and an innate love of the natural world. Through each chapter the author describes the happenings in the natural world, while the characters struggle with modern city life and find solace in the flora and fauna of the park and commons area. They form a loosely linked kinship, especially between TC and Jozef and his dog, Znadja (Polish for foundling). Sophia introduces Daisy into this world, through gardening and observation of nature, as well encouraging her to play with TC. Alas, Daisy is not of their world (spoiler alert) and it is her grounding in the life of the modern world that brings the idyll down.

I use the term idyll deliberately because the author's writing has a sense of pastoral poetry buried within. During descriptions of events in the park and the woods, I kept thinking of T.S. Eliot's 'The Wasteland'. Then the phrase from which the novel derives its name appeared on p. 185 (advance reader's copy) "We are the clay that grew tall.." This phrase is paraphrased from Wifred Owen's WWI poem 'Futility': "Was it for this the clay grew tall?" If you look up the poem, you'll find that many of the other phrases of the poem feel familiar after reading this novel.

This is a small but ambitious first novel which I feel privileged to have read in advance of it's release. ( )
1 vote tangledthread | Dec 19, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I enjoyed [Clay: a novel] by [Melissa Harrison], an ER book. This story covers a calendar year in the lives of several people and one dog in urban London. What they all have in common is use of and a relationship to a small natural area. (As far as I can figure out, some of it is formally what we in Atlanta refer to as a park, and some is just area that hasn’t been formally developed or claimed by human beings). The three main human characters are lonely – their relationships to other people aren’t enough – and they have a conscious need for action in /preservation of / relationship with the natural world. It’s not clear to me if this relationship to the natural world is in addition to their human relationships or simply meets needs those human relationships don’t fill. The reader is allowed inside each person’s head for parts of the story; the dog’s actions are described from the perspective of two of the people.

I liked all of the characters in the story: Znajda the dog, Jozef, the immigrant from a farm lost to the changes of CE Poland, TC, the adolescent boy with an absent father and mother, Sophia, missing her dead husband, torn between her relationship with her nine-year-old granddaughter Daisy and the possibility of a closer relationship with her daughter Linda, and the relationships that develop among these individuals and others. It’s a comment, in part, I think, on the loneliness of the human condition and how we seek to ameliorate that loneliness.

Intriguingly, each chapter was titled with a different holiday or holy day, many of which I had a passing familiarity with (Michelmas, Candlemas, May Day, etc.), and many of which I had to look up (Plough Monday, Hock Tide, Oak Day). The story started and ended with chapters set on St. Bartholomew’s day (Aug. 23rd, the eve of the feast of St. Bartholomew the Apostle, commemorates the assassination of a number of prominent Protestants in Paris in 1572 and the ensuing Huguenot massacres), so it was clear from the beginning that this story would not have a happy ending. And yet I hoped for one! Though perhaps the point wasn’t a happy ending, but the ongoing web of relationships we weave as we try to take care of ourselves and sometimes others.

I’m also intrigued by the author’s blog and photos at Tales of the City. ( )
1 vote markon | Dec 10, 2012 |
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The little wedge-shaped city park was as beautiful and as unremarkable as a thousand others across the country, and despite the changing seasons many of the people who lived near it barely even knew that it was there -- although that was certainly not true of all.
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Struggling to adjust to the city after moving from a Polish village, Jozef bonds with a runaway student over games of chess and is observed by a widow who writes letters to her granddaughter in the hopes of sparking the girl's interest in nature.

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