Book review

Red Shift by Alan Garner (1973)

Now, don't be put off if I say this is a strange, difficult book. It is set in three time zones - Roman, English Civil War and present day. So three quite separate stories are running at the same time. There is one thread common to them all, and that is an ancient stone axe head which is found and possessed by the characters. And in each story there is a young couple who have a complex relationship. All the events occur around the same hill in Cheshire, Mow Cop.

The relationship between Tom and Jan in the present time provides the anchor. The path of their story is laid out in concise dialogue which is not always easy to fathom but you can get the drift. The trouble with lengthy dialogue is that if you make a wrong guess about who is speaking you can be half way down the page before you realize. Then you have to backtrack. Anyway, they use the axe head as a token of their love for each other and take turns to look after it while they are apart. Until Tom, the cad, recognizes its worth and hands it over to the British Museum. Well, yes, I suppose it is the best place for it.

The Roman story is difficult to spot at first, but it helps if you know that there is a famous unsolved mystery in history about what happened to the Ninth Legion. Here, Alan Garner tells us that the survivors of the Legion went native, that is, disguised themselves as native tribesmen and went into hiding. In order to obtain the clothes, food and weapons they needed they raided a village and captured a sacred young girl. And that was their downfall. In this story the axe head is owned by a young lad with the Ninth who is prone to go berserk in battle, but who befriends the young girl and therefore survives the inevitable slaughter.

The Civil War is the setting for the third strand of story. Here the axe head is found by a young lad who may be some kind of epileptic. It is found during the digging of defensive earthworks, for the village must protect themselves against the Irish who are roaming the land burning and killing as they come. This lad, also called Thomas, treats the axe head as a good luck omen and perhaps it really works because Thomas is spared in the ensuing carnage.

Are all the young men descended one from the other? Probably not. I don't think it is seriously suggested that they are. Does the axe head cause their erratic behaviour? I don't know, but I don't think so because Thomas was already some kind of special case before he ever found it, and Macey, hanging on with the Romans refers to some early attack on his family as being the cause of his distress. But both Macey and Thomas survive slaughter by the mob against all the odds, so perhaps they have the axe head to thank for that. In which case, where does that leave our modern Tom who sold it to the British Museum?

Have a go and see what you think!

What can I read next?

Alan Garner has written quite a few other books, but nothing quite like this. You might like to have a look at this one:

If you are interested in what happened to the Ninth Legion you could look at this trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliffe:

  • The Eagle of the Ninth
  • The Silver Branch
  • The Lantern Bearers

It is for older readers, but you might be interested in this one by Melvin Burgess:

Or you could look at William Mayne's time travel trilogy:

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