Review by Rachel Patterson
Honor Gavin’s novel Midland is by no means a novel for everybody. This is not to say that it is not worth reading, only that it is a book in which you need to invest time and mental energy. Midland offers no easy answers and the ending feels slightly anticlimactic, but Gavin’s assured and unique writing style means that not a minute of reading her novel feels wasted.
Telling the story of both a city and a family in the 40s, 60s and 80s, Gavin’s writing style is as fractured as the period. The story is told out of order, meaning it is truly a ‘novel out of time,’ and the characters are simply called, the bab, the working woman and Rita. But Gavin’s unique narrative style is one of the great strengths of the novel. Her observational and sometimes splintered sentences, build up the world and the characters within it, in almost a mosaic-like fashion. Gavin’s prose is also possessed with a strong rhythm; I found myself with phrases from the book ringing in my head long after I had put it down.
Many may feel the novel lacks plot, yet Gavin’s eye for the small details of family life more than makes up for this perceived gap. She manages to capture things that everybody has experienced, but which have slipped from memory; episodes such as Rita’s burial of her childhood pet, her first experience of death, are exceptionally relatable. Midland is a book which reaches to the heart of what family and community is and this acts as the unifying force in the novel.
Its slightly anticlimactic ending at first left me a little perplexed. On finishing I felt like Rita, who at the end is dragged on a seemingly pointless journey through Birmingham. On reflection, this was mainly because I had connected so strongly with the bab, the working woman and Rita throughout the novel. I wanted closure for their characters so badly but none was given. But after a few hours, it seemed like this was Gavin’s intention. No matter how strong the characters are, they are used as vessels to tell the story of Gavin’s hidden protagonist – the city of Birmingham itself. The characters, like people in the real world, are simply passing through the landscape.
All in all, as expected from any nominee of the Gordon Burn Prize, Midland is not a traditional novel. Instead of delivering easy answers and a unified plot, the rhythm of Gavin’s prose lulls you until an arresting moment makes you sit up and take notice. The reader, like the characters are left to make sense of this. If you approach Midland with an open mind and don’t demand it be anything other than it is, it offers great rewards to the reader.
Rachel Patterson is a Reviewer in Residence at Durham Book Festival.
Reviewers in Residence is a Cuckoo Young Writers programme ,which allows young critics to develop an in-depth relationship with a venue or art form, and take part in exclusively tailored writing masterclasses.