This is an extraordinary novel, a bildungsroman set for the most part in a boarding school reminiscent of Gormenghast, where an unnamed narrator makes his way in a community of violent, abandoned teenaged boys.
The Fell is short for Feallan House, situated in the town of Cutter. Cutter includes a few elements of the author’s hometown of Nelson but is more reminiscent of literary Valparaiso or Brest! The narrator is sent to The Fell after an awful event in his unnamed hometown, where his sister, Lilly, is sent to jail.
The narrator is haunted by these early life events, has lovely memories of life with his lifeguard-father and hears Lilly talking to him through the soundwaves of a smuggled radio. He makes friends with a shambly group of misfits in The Fell, including a ghost and animated marionettes – and the bulk of the novel is made up of their testosterone banter, their alcohol and drug-fuelled nights, their survival-type exploits, their first loves, and their loneliness: “there is no hell worse than being ignored and shunned and lonely.”
“I think maybe we were lacking sufficient and significant adult supervision at a critical juncture in our development” says one of the narrator’s close friends, Johnny – and a truer thing was never spoken. Most of the adults in The Fell are corrupt and mean, as seen though the eyes of a troubled boy. There are some exceptions, but they are the minorities in both senses of the word: “They were really nice people, as criminals and gangsters and illegal immigrants usually are.” There is one ‘good’ teacher, an African, Mister Solomon Sesay, “on the edge of being mad”, who tries to temper the narrator’s leaning towards violence.
The narrator and his gang want to break Lilly out of jail, just one of their many plans to be heroes, but how do you go about being a hero? In one planning session with Johnny: “… we didn’t know what to write or what makes a real-life full-time professional hero so we gave up and made a list of people to kill instead.” And The Fell doesn’t shy away from violence, or the ease with which boyhood fantasies can seep into reality. The novel has a Lord of the flies feel about it at times.
There are moments of beauty as well, the intensity of a young boy’s first love, in the narrator’s case with Melody Grace, a fabulous character full of energy and wisdom. The fireworks of youth that knows it is finite: “For one week the trees blaze and light up the world and then it’s over and things change and this is like youth and love and life.” And the moment when Johnny talks of listening to the dying heartbeat of stags when he has just shot them: “It’s like God dies with end of a heartbeat.”
The alternate time/place feel of The Fell works well, you don’t know where/when you are, which makes you long for a different reality for the boys. And they do too, one going off to the “Foreign Legion”, Melody Grace leaving for “Cadiz”, the narrator’s friend Majid inviting him to Arabia where “… if by Allah’s will we are not to be holy warriors, we can drink tea. Peppermint tea.” It is as though their dreams are the only things they have to look forward to – apart from Johnny, who is white and from wealth.
The Fell is sad and tragic and makes you want the world to be different, even though the world described is extreme and unreal – the resonances are all too real. Unrealised potential, misunderstood possibilities, uneven playing fields of opportunity … And you despair for the narrator: “… it seemed like all my life I was made of sand and took the shape of everyone I got blown up against but I had no shape of my own and however hard I clung to that shape it always went away and the winds came and I was nothing again …” I highly recommend this book.