Valerie Sirr casts a critical over Welsh poet and author Robert Minhinnick’s novel Limestone Man.
With Limestone Man Minhinnick successfully dispenses with any schematic delineation of character, motivation, plot; linearity. It’s free from exposition and an attempt here to neatly summarise plot would go against its spirit. It’s reminiscent of A Visit From the Goon Squad – the obsession with music, wide-ranging narrative jumps, seemingly random connections that confidently allow room for the reader’s imagination, but in this novel we get one main protagonist, Parry. His perspective (both close and strangely detached) has a melancholic intensity, which intrigues despite his obvious lack of heroic qualities, though he does have a vague (and fairly impractical) dream of bringing culture to The Caib on the south Wales coast, via a shop called Badfinger, similar to one Hey Bulldog he set up in Goolwa, Australia, selling ‘dreams’ to people ‘somehow abandoned’, ‘somehow betrayed’. Music heads like Parry will enjoy spotting references like those shop titles, scattered throughout the novel.
Music is a character in itself here. Parry plays music constantly, music from the 60s, experimental music. He has an aficionado’s knowledge of individual musicians’ stories, of bands betrayed by the music business. In The Caib as a kid he was involved with a band that used to play in The Paradise Club (now a rundown pub), with his mates Gil and Fflint who make a brief and poignantly amusing ‘wrong place, wrong time’ comeback at the end of the novel. At times music lyrics are interspersed within the text. In passages of dialogue Minhinnick shows a special affinity for the sound and music of speech.
Another character with a strong presence is the earth and its natural phenomena, specifically in Goolwa and The Caib. Brief numbered sections remembering the narrator’s youth in The Caib and his time in Goolwa are exquisite, the language melodic and rhythmic echoing the poetry of Dylan Thomas. But memory, the language of memory and dream, generate the most powerful energy of Limestone Man. There is little forward movement in the narrative. Passages of dialogue without quotation marks add to the feeling of the unbroken flowing together of past, present, reality and dream. Does his father phone him or is he imagining talking with him? Thinking back to his father’s warning about sulphur when Parry worked at the steel works, he realises it’s not his father’s words he remembers, it’s his own words now, but in his father’s voice: ‘Sulphur will paint a coat of yellow distemper over you. From the inside. Sulphur will anoint your liver and infiltrate your dirtbox…yellowing your blood…A fret off the marsh. A fume, a fug, a fog. A veil on the bog.’ The pages of this novel are saturated in sulphur, sinter, the encompassing fog of The Caib and the red rain of Goolwa after drought. Elsewhere closely observed descriptions of ‘The Works’ have a harsh beauty as vividly alive as the more scenic places revisited over and again in Parry’s memory like the Murray river in Goolwa: ‘Green as baize, those waters. Green as shantung silk…And I could see the full moon’s milk, its membrane on the Murray. That moonskin on the mirrors of the dying river pools.’
In the constant movement away from brief passages of real time, the present moment feels almost irrelevant, as do the characters to whom Parry tells his stories about the past. The future is denied – his home place, The Caib, to which he returns from Goolwa, has become famous for young people’s suicides. Parry’s beloved shops (culture ‘scenes’) Badfinger and Hey Bulldog are repositories for old CDs, books, postcards. Parry takes risks with his own life, refusing medical advice. And although Parry is obsessed with young people, it’s as if he’s using them, puppet like, to be versions of the younger Parry. Parry even gives one young man a shirt of his own to wear. But the novel has wider scope and themes beyond individual psychology, agency, or character development. Parry is a rambling youth-obsessed anti-hero, of questionable morals, failed painter, failed musician, as well as a failed photographer and writer of biography, yet he has at times a mythical ‘Dreamtime’ quality, like the shape changing aboriginal myths, his calcifying arteries turning him to stone. At other times the stones become human: ‘…heard the boulders breathe. An endless exhalation that was not the distant tide or the wind that riffled the surface of the rock pools. The boulders breathing. As alive as he.’
Parry’s memorialising of himself in a constant flow of almost desperate stories told to a couple of old friends and eventually ‘to whoever might hear him’ is akin to the ‘Look! I was here’ of some obsessive Instagram uploader, though Parry’s memories are made not of quick selfies, but of stunning painterly language, and are unfiltered, except by his own unreliability and the possibility of misremembering, a possibility of which he is all too aware.
A subtle narrative thread is provided by Parry’s obsession with the disappeared Lulu, ‘a native kid’, who helped out and slept in corners of Hey Bulldog, a fellow lover of reading who tells him about planets, stars, birds. She is not a clichéd instinctive aboriginal girl, but ‘raised on the streets of Adelaide’. Is Lulu a replacement daughter for the childless Parry, or is there something sexual in his interest? Parry is hazily unclear about the events leading up to Lulu’s disappearance and we are left wondering how much of his memories are real, and how much are reinvention, dream, or alcohol induced. The lack of clarity throughout the novel about his sexuality echoes the theme at the heart of Limestone Man of the impossibility of certainty.
An abiding theme is how quickly we disappear. Lulu’s sudden disappearance, the disappearance of his friend Lizzie, and now Parry vanishing from himself as he vanishes physically into the saturating fog of The Caib, ‘This was how people disappeared. Molecule by molecule. A thinning of the self.’ Later, Parry’s consciousness appears to meld with natural phenomena as when he notices neon signs reflected in a black sea, ‘…Sometimes I’ve thought it was language melting…Or maybe the sea was dissolving the words.’
Yet even though we are creatures constructed by language and memory. Even if ‘all that’s left are our outlines. Which are made up of memories. And eventually those memories disappear as well’. Even if language ‘melts’, Parry and the places that he talks of, will leave traces, like the ‘life shadow’ of fossils.
There is no resolution, no closure, and yet the novel coheres beautifully through the ghostly presence of Lulu and the cumulative detail of segues into memory and dream. There is some wonderful Welsh humour provided by Parry’s father – the most emotionally engaged writing in the novel is in the scenes with son and father, a man eventually robbed of language and memory by brain disease, as Parry may be, one day.
Limestone Man is a very fine novel written with a hypnotic style that at times makes one almost doubt one’s own memory of earlier passages of text, strangely heightening the vicarious experience of Parry’s imperiled consciousness, as it circles back to repeated obsessions. It’s a weird experience, but one worth having. As Parry himself says about Hey Bulldog:
‘…try some of this weird stuff...try it, For all that ailed you. For any gutrot. For any worldwarp. For any soulache. For the migraine where your soul should be’.
Limestone Man is available from Seren Books.
Valerie Sirr has written multiple literature reviews for Wales Arts Review.