Martin John


“I’m compelled by what the novel might become rather than what I know it to be,” might well be the credo of the Goldsmiths Prize, so it is perhaps no surprise that Anakana Schofield’s second novel, Martin John is to be found on the short list. Martin John is an unusual novel, but then Martin John is an unusual man:

“They had come for him after the incident outside the SuperValu shop, down the lane with the girl.
They had come for him with the one on the bus.
They had come for him that time with the girl who said he put his hand down the band of her skirt.
The other girl where he put his hand between her legs.
They had come for him.
They were her brothers. It was brothers who usually came. Well their fists mostly.”

Martin John doesn’t mind the beating – “He derived pleasure from their aggression” – but his mam decides something must be done:

“- We’ve got to get you out, mam said when she saw the state of him. If you can’t stop, we’ve to stop it.
Could he stop it? What would he stop?
– Stop what, he said. She will not go further. She will never give voice to that which she wished stopped.”

Martin John is exiled to London where he finds work as a security guard:

“Mam has warned him the only thing keeping him on the straight is the job…
The job, she points out, stopped you doing the other stuff. The other stuff no-one can save him from.”

This not the tale of Martin John’s redemption or damnation, however: this is the story told but not the way the story is told. Martin John’s past and present unfold together in a pattern of tenses and voices. Repetition is the key because Martin John is a repeat offender. The circuits he patrols as a security guard, and in his own time around Euston Station, are both his salvation and temptation.

“To clarify: the novel is predicated upon a loop, the form of the novel is deliberately circular, punctuated throughout by five recurring refrains. It is constructed this way to speak to the cyclical nature of reoffending, the cycles of mental illness and the cycle of complicity.”

The daily crossword, the weekly visits to Aunty Noanie, the annual Eurovision Song Contest: Martin John’s life is one of ritual. The language, too, takes on the rhythm of ritual, with Martin John’s five refrains listed at the beginning in an index (surely a sign in itself that order will not be observed). These five nonsensical statements accrue meaning throughout the novel, but do not become meaningful: they are little more than hooks on which Martin John hangs his life and rationalises his irrational behaviour. The circuits with which he seeks to control that life simply circumscribe it; as time loops backwards and forwards, language tightens the noose, the echo of recurring phrases emphasising the walls of his prison.

Novels about ‘bad’ people can seduce the reader (think Lolita, think American Psycho), but Martin John lacks any glamour. The looped world of his obsessions makes him small, yet we also come to understand that world. Martin John is so focused on his own gratification he does not consider his actions within the realm of right and wrong; “harm was done”, one of his five refrains, is an empty catechism, not an empathetic realisation. Schofield achieves the perfect balance of engagement without identification: we understand Martin John but do not sympathise.

What, then, is the attraction for the reader? Firstly, the poetry of the prose; not a poetry of beauty but one of power – fierce, incantatory – allowing, secondly, the cracking open of Martin John’s mind, an under-the-stone glimpse, but without forgetting, thirdly, the reverberation of his actions on those around him. Schofield lures the reader, at times, into the narrow tunnel of Martin John’s viewpoint, only to suddenly look up and reveal the outside: mam’s complicity; the treatment of his victims:

“Years ago his mother had come. His mother had come and asked that she – The Girl – not press charges. She, his mother, said The Boy, her son, would be going away and promised he would never bother her again.”

The novel may come from a different time – “It was a time when people didn’t ask as many questions” – the 1980s, but its urgency is never in doubt. The paralysis Martin John creates in the final scene echoes society’s indecision when faced with the problem he represents. Ironically, as much as Martin John remains unchanged, in Martin John we witnessed the novel becoming something new.

Quotations from Anakana Schofield are from an interview in the Irish Times.

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15 Responses to “Martin John”

  1. Lisa Hill Says:

    Thanks for an enticing review, this one goes onto my wishlist.

  2. roughghosts Says:

    I just requested this as a bonus with a subscription I purchased. It has take me a long time to decide if I wanted to read it. (I can’t say why exactly.) Of course Schofield gets a lot of attention here because she lives in Vancouver. Your review adds to my interest in finally getting to it.

    • 1streading Says:

      I hope you enjoy it, Joe. Perhaps your hesitation simply relates to the subject matter?

      • roughghosts Says:

        More a question of whether the subject matter, as presented can sustain my interest. I delayed reading it when it came out here, wondering if it would come with my And Other Stories subscription (it didn’t, an issue that upset quite a few of us and been addressed). But that delay was enough for me to read a wide range of reviews and become more unresolved.

      • 1streading Says:

        The one thing in its favour is that it’s certainly unlike anything else I’ve read this year. The Goldsmiths Prize is quite a good way to keep in touch with interesting English language writing.

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    While this novel is not for me, it does sound very accomplished and deserving of its place on the Goldsmiths list. Are you planning to read your way through the complete shortlist?

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m hoping to read most of them (unlike other shortlists this one is actually short). Possibly not Transit as I believe it’s a sequel to Outline which I haven’t read.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It does sound quite interesting. Where’s the author from? Is it Irish?

    It looks like an And Other Stories imprint, is that correct?

    • Max Cairnduff Says:

      Oops, I meant to comment against Solar Bones, but had this page open too and so got confused between the two. I’ll have to leave fresh comments once I’ve reread this…

      • 1streading Says:

        If the question is about Solar Bones – yes, the author is Irish and it’s published by an Irish publisher – Tramp Press.
        With regard to Martin John it’s a little more complicated as Anakana is Irish, though born in England, and now lives in Canada. But Martin John is published by And Other Stories.
        Hope this helps!

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That comment was meant to be for Solar Bones. Somehow I read that review, then these comments. No wonder I got confused.

    Anyway, my fear would be the repetitive element, but that seems a strength. That first quote is almost confusing and rather staccato, a whole book of that could be quite draining.

    Is the “To clarify” quote from a foreword or the actual novel? How meta is this?

  6. … you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us. | Pechorin's Journal Says:

    […] Self reviewed this at the Guardian here and Grant of 1st Reading reviewed it at his here. I seem to have lost my notes of other reviews so please let me know of them in the […]

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