Category Archives: Bristol Novel

Week 2: The Shock of the Fall vs The Choice

Pitting Susan Lewis against Nathan Filer is like making Tweetie bird fight Muhammad Ali and I just don’t have it in me. Well, I do but I’ll do my best to keep as bloodless as possible.

filer_nathan_shock_of_the_Fall_140225a vs susan lewis_the choice

The Shock of the Fall describes the life of a boy from Bristol dealing with his grief at the death of his brother and experience of mental health care services for schizophrenia. The Choice is about a young girl (21, not 19 as the blurb says) who falls pregnant, falls out with her parents and then is confronted by a choice no parent should have to make.

Whereas Filer’s first book is sparse and clear, Lewis’s writing is filled with adjectives, adverbs and every possible type of description she could find.

There are mischievous eyes, eyes full of mischief and eyes of grey lead. Hearts surge, worried faces light up, voices soften with tenderness, or are husky with pride. Cliches fill the pages, serving no purpose other than to provide fodder for those who don’t have the time to turn on their television at midday and catch another made-for-TV-melodrama.

We don’t even find out what The Choice is until about 300 pages in to a 500 page novel and then every possible plot combination gets thrown in for good measure.

In direct contrast, Filer shows and never tells. As the writer he doesn’t presume anything about our understanding. Every word in the Shock of the Fall is direct and helps the story. He is a storyteller because he has a story to tell and nothing more. Lewis’s 26th* novel is an example of pulp publication where words are put in one after the other and spat out to people who just want to stay distracted for a few hours and aren’t too fussed about engaging and growing with their characters.

One thing Lewis does do well, however, is write about Bristol. It doesn’t matter whether the story requires it, and it seldom does, but if you read the Choice, you’ll find yourself finding out all about Brunel, Corn Street, Broadmead, the Banana bridge, the ss Great Britain, Southville, the Tobacco Factory and the Clifton Suspension Bridge. All are mentioned quite familiarly by the Bristol writer and are well written. They add nothing to the story, however. Lewis could just as easily have set her story somewhere else and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

The Shock of the Fall is not inherently Bristolian but unlike Lewis, Filer touches on location only where he has to. The occasional mention of Kingsdown in passing doesn’t have to mean much but when his protagonist talks to a homeless man on the corner of Jamaica Street and Stokes Croft (not Cheltenham Road as he writes) we Bristolians, know exactly what he’s talking about and why it’s easy to make that mistake. The area adds to the story, to the characters, it needs no further explanation.

One of the most poignant scenes takes a Bristolian landmark and misses it. The protagonist Matthew Homes’ mother, tells him of how she had tried to find the Clifton Suspension Bridge when she was younger and in despair about what to do wanted to jump off it but ended up circling around Clifton instead. Bristol is integrated into the story, not an aside, not a random description. Filer does it beautifully. The Shock of the Fall won Best First Novel and Book of the Year at the 2013 Costa Book Awards.

The winner this week, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, was never in doubt but it’s interesting to see that even though Lewis wrote pages and pages about Bristol, the snippets which Filer uses add more to a Bristolian sense of his work than constant references used as filler.

Week 1: Heartman vs Colinthology

Round 1, between Heartman and Colinthology, may be the most Bristolian of all because it is full of the paradoxes that make this city what it is. From spring to nearly winter there is a festival every weekend and one of the biggest celebrations took place yesterday at the very heart of St Paul’s and the setting of Wright’s Heartman.

Heartman by M.P. Wright published July 1, 2014 Colinthology300

Neither M.P. Wright nor Colin Harvey were born in Bristol and it is fitting that immigration and bringing home to a strange place fits in well with both our works.

Joseph Ellington, the main character in Heartman is from Barbados and it is the African Caribbean culture that all of the city was celebrating yesterday at St. Paul’s carnival whose theme was ’Home – Inna We Yard.’

‘Home’ means different things to different people but a true sense of home will encompass a feeling of one being at peace. African Proverb ‘When you are at home, your troubles can never defeat you’ Cape Coast, Ghana.

Heartman’s Ellington is an ex-cop forced to flee Barbados in tragedy. He finds himself in Bristol, 1965, unemployed in his family’s community in Bristol’s St. Paul and forced to take on a private investigation by a Jamaican councillor.

In pursuit of the truth he, and we, come across murder, drugs, racism and the community spirit and rich culture of the African Caribbean families that live in St Paul’s. What starts off as Ellington trying to make some money ends up with a race to possibly save the life of a vulnerable young woman.

Heartman is a story steeped in Bristolian settings, mannerisms and cultural outlets. There is a sense that it couldn’t have taken place anywhere else. From pubs in Montpelier, the city centre and St Paul’s, to lunch at the very white cafe at John Lewis in Broadmead, this is a work so well written and researched that it could be a major piece of evidence in the case for time travel.

Colinthology, on the other hand, is a collection of short stories published by Wizard’s Tower Press as a tribute to science fiction writer and avid Bristolian, Colin Harvey. Each story is preceded by a personal tribute to Harvey who passed away in 2011.

This moving publication is a symbol of one of the most Bristolian attributes of which I know, that sense of a community created as a second family in a bigger city. From Clifton to Stokes Croft, Bristol’s suburbs are so well-established that they seem little cities all of their own.

In the same sense, the stories in Colinthology range from a classic tale such as Nick Walters’ The Man Down The Road, so well structured and written that it could be found adapted as an episode from The Twilight Zone to Graham Raven’s Biz Be Biz, the opening story that has a bit too much detail of the new world it creates and loses sight of the actual plot.

Regardless of the quality of the stories, and some such as K.J. Jewell’s Newfangled are exceptional, Colinthology is worth reading because I don’t think you can understand the space fictional Bristol inhabits without the science fiction and fantasy component so aptly edited by Joanne Hall and Roz Clarke. It is this very community that convinced me I couldn’t run a book tournament without including short stories and so this is more a Bristol Book tournament than a novel one.

Some works in Colinthology are quite Bristolian in place settings and dialogue but here and there other parts fail – the length is too much for the sparse plot or the action could have taken place anywhere. One component that is common between both Heartman and Colinthology is the emphasis on pubs, ale and making the strange familiar.

Wright and Ellington are both fans of Dragon Stout chased by rum whereas Harvey was well known for his love of ales and many of the stories and tributes take place in pubs or the writers include a mention of the prized liquid where they can. So from the King William off King Street to the Garter and Star in St Paul’s, this round was lovingly Bristolian but in the end there was only one choice.

Heartman by M.P. Wright, published with great timing on July 1st by Black & White Publishing, is the winner of Round 1.

Many thanks to Wright’s publishers and to Wizard’s Tower Press who helped kick off our first week. Now here is a treat to help you decide whether you want to read our winner. [see the video trailer below]

All proceeds from the sale of Colinthology go to the charity Above and Beyond which helps improve patient care in Bristol’s hospitals.

Bristol novel rankings

Group 1 – The Elites

  1. Filer, Nathan – The Shock of the Fall (2013)
  2. Freeman, Anna – The Fair Fight (2014)
  3. Benatar, Stephen – Wish Her Safe at Home (1982)
  4. Brown, Chris – Guilty Tiger , Bovver (2002)
  5. Carter, Angela – ‘The Bristol Trilogy’ (link):Shadow Dance (1966), Several Perceptions (1968) and Love (1971) – Locarno Ballroom.
  6. Manson, Mike – Where’s My Money (2008)
  7. Wakling, Chris – The Devil’s Mask (2011)
  8. Burgess, Melvyn – Smack (or Junk) (2010)

Group 2 – Literary

  1. Barnes, Julian – The Sense of An Ending (2011)
  2. Byrne, Eugene – Things Unborn (2001)
  3. Nichols, David – Starter for Ten (2004)
  4. Cusk, Rachel – Arlington Park (2010)
  5. Butler, Paul – Cupids (2010)
  6. Trewavas, Ed – Shawnie (2006).
  7. Nicholson, Christopher – The Elephant Keeper (2009)
  8. Lee, Jonathan – Who is Mr Satoshi (2010)

Group 3 – Crime

  1. Wright, M.P. – Heartman (2014)
  2. McNeill, Fergus – Eye Contact (2012); Knife Edge (2013); Cut Out (2014)
  3. Carver, Caroline – Gone Without Trace (2007)
  4. English, Lucy – Selfish People (1998).
  5. Ferguson, Patricia – Peripheral Vision (2007); the Midwife’s Daughter (2012)
  6. Lewis,Robert – The Last Llanelli Train (2005)
  7. Hall, M.R. – The Coroner (Jenny Cooper 1) (2009)
  8. Prowse, Philip – Bristol Murder (2008)

Group 4 – Murder and Others

  1. Flood, C.J. – Infinite Sky (2013)
  2. Tessa Hadley – Clever Girl (2013)
  3. Hardy, Jules – Altered Land (2002)
  4. Hayder, Mo — Jack Caffery series – Birdman (2000); The Treatment (2002); Ritual (2008); Skin (2009); Gone (2010); Poppet (2012); Wolf (2014);
  5. Mason, Sarah – Playing James (2003)
  6. Moate, Jari – Paradise Now (2010)
  7. Johnson, Jeannie (pseudonym of Lizzie Lane) – A Penny for Tomorrow (2003).
  8. Gregory, Philippa – A Respectable Trade (1995)

Group 5 – Short Stories mostly

  1. Clarke, Roz and Hall, Joanne (Ed.)- Colinthology (2012)
  2. Clarke, Roz and Hall, Joanne (ed) – Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion (2014)
  3. Harvey, Colin – Future Bristol (Ed.) (2009)
  4. Harvey, Colin – Dark Spires(Ed.) (2010)
  5. White, Tony – Missorts Volume II (2013)
  6. Maughan, Tim – Paintwork(2011)
  7. Boyce, Lucienne – To the Fair Land (2012)
  8. Lewis, Susan – The Choice (2010)

Group 6 – Historical and sagas

  1. Marshall, Emma (1830-1899) – inc. Bristol Bells (the story of Chatterton), Under the Mendips, In Colston’s Days and Bristol Diamonds
  2. Smollett, Tobias – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771)
  3. Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island (1883)
  4. Burney, Fanny – Evelina (1778)
  5. Lane, Lizzie – Wartime Brides (2012)
  6. Steen,Marguerite – The Sun Is My Undoing (1941)
  7. Young, E.H. – The Misses Mallett (1922). William – A Novel ().
  8. Butler Hallett , Michelle – Deluded Your Sailors (2011)

Group 7 – Bits and Pieces

  1. Douglas, Louise – In Her Shadow (2012)
  2. Dunn, Matt – The Accidental Proposal (2011)
  3. Smith, Zadie – Martha and Hanwell(2005)
  4. Le Carre, John – Our Game (1995)
  5. Moggach, Deborah – These Foolish Things (2005), You must be sisters (1978)
  6. Godwin, John – Children of the Wave (2010)
  7. Mayhew, Daniel – Life and How to Live it (2004).
  8. Ames, Laurel – Castaway (1993)

Group 8 – the Unknowns

  1. Bouzane, Lillian – In the Hands of the Living God (1999)
  2. Random, Bert – Spannered (2011)
  3. Rowbotham, Michael – Shatter (2009)
  4. Sheers, Owen – Pink Mist (2013)
  5. Mitchell, Diane – Tainted Legacy (2012)
  6. O’Brien, Maureen – Dead Innocent (2004)
  7. Myles, Josephine – Pole Star (2012)
  8. Archer, Jeffrey – Only Time Will Tell (2011)

Order of play for the Bristol Book Tournament

The following table shows the order of play for the tournament.

Group 2 v Group 4
Group 7 v Group 1
Group 5 v Group 3
Group 8 v Group 6.

For the first month, for example, the books competing will be as follows:

  1. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending vs CJ Flood’s Infinite Sky;
  2. Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall vs Louise Dougas’ In Her Shadow;
  3. MP Wright’s Heartman vs Clark, Ros and Hall’s Colinthology;
  4. Marshall Emma v Bouzane, Lillian’s In the Hands of the Living God

Methodology:  I created eight columns and added the groups in order (Group 1 to 8). Then I created a random function which gives a number between 0 and 1 and sorted in ascending order. The following groups were selected.

Group 2 – Literary Group 4 Group 1 – The Elites Group 7 – Group 3 – Crime Group 5 – Short Stories mostly Group 6 – Historical and sagas Group 8 – the Unknowns
Barnes, Julian – The Sense of An Ending Flood, C.J. – Infinite Sky (2013) Filer, Nathan – The Shock of the Fall (2013) Douglas, Louise – In Her Shadow Wright, M.P. – Heartman Clarke, Roz and Hall, Joanne – Colinthology (Ed.) Marshall, Emma (1830-1899) – inc. Bristol Bells Bouzane, Lillian – In the Hands of the Living God (1999)
Byrne, Eugene – Things Unborn (2001) Tessa Hadley – Clever Girl Freeman, Anna – The Fair Fight (2014) Dunn, Matt – The Accidental Proposal McNeill, Fergus – Eye Contact (2012) Hall, Joanne (ed) – Airship Shape & Bristol Fashion (2014) Smollett, Tobias – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker Random, Bert – Spannered (Feeder Road)
Nichols, David – Starter for Ten (2004) Hardy, Jules – Altered Land Benatar, Stephen – Wish Her Safe at Home Smith, Zadie – Hanwell in Hell (Park Street) Carver, Caroline – Gone Without Trace (2007) Harvey, Colin – Future Bristol (Ed.) Stevenson, Robert Louis – Treasure Island Rowbotham, Michael – Shatter
Cusk, Rachel – Arlington Park (2010) Hayder, Mo – Wolf; Skin; Gone; Ritual Brown, Chris – Guilty Tiger , Bovver Le Carre, John – Our Game English, Lucy – Selfish People (1998). Harvey, Colin – Dark Spires(Ed.) Burney, Fanny – Evelina Sheers, Owen – Pink Mist
Butler, Paul – Cupids Mason, Sarah – Playing James Carter, Angela – ‘The Bristol Trilogy’ Moggach, Deborah – These Foolish Things Ferguson, Patricia – Peripheral Vision; the Midwife’s Daughter White, Tony – Missorts Volume II Lane, Lizzie – Wartime Brides (2012) Mitchell, Diane – Tainted Legacy
Trewavas, Ed – Shawnie (2006). Moate, Jari – Paradise Now Manson, Mike – Where’s My Money Godwin, John – Children of the Wave Lewis,Robert – The Last Llanelli Train (2005) Maughan, Tim – Paintwork(2011) Steen,Marguerite – The Sun Is My Undoing (1941) O’Brien, Maureen – Dead Innocent
Nicholson, Christopher – The Elephant Keeper Johnson, Jeannie (pseudonym of Lizzie Lane) – A Penny for Tomorrow (2003). Wakling, Chris – The Devil’s Mask Mayhew, Daniel – Life and How to Live it (2004). Hall, M.R. – The Coroner (Jenny Cooper 1) (2009) Boyce, Lucienne – To the Fair Land (2012) Young, E.H. – The Misses Mallett (1922). William – A Novel (). Myles, Josephine – Pole Star

What’s place got to do with it? Settings in fiction

The Clifton Suspension Bridge is not only the most prominent Bristolian landmark in tourism promotions but also a ubiquitous name-drop in Bristolian fiction. From Julian Barnes to MR Hall, it is a synonym for Bristol in a most dramatic way.

Yet, when I recently took part in the Bristol Central library’s literary walking tour from the centre to Clifton and back, we didn’t go to the bridge. Just a few hundred feet from Brunel’s design, we stopped at the little green next to Pro Cathedral Lane and near the Clifton Triangle while our narrator / actor read to us a scene from Nathan Filer’s the Shock of the Fall. The protagonist’s mother had tried to find the bridge to jump off but got lost and wandered around Clifton instead.

In Barnes’ Sense of an Ending we are told that the postcard perfect bridge is known for its suicides and in Hall’s the Coroner we are greeted with the sign from the Samaritans reaching out to anyone who may want to think again before taking their very final step.

Associating high bridges with suicide is not unique to Bristol, however, the two different meanings placed to the same landmark is interesting when you want to think about place as a space not only inhabited by its citizens but also created by us: “suicide spot” or “tourist destination” or “Brunel’s masterpiece” [explore]. There are three types of space: absolute space which is the physical presence around us; social space – the way we live in our surroundings; and conceived space – the space we create through art and representation. [The Production of Space]

The Bristol which writers create in their fiction inhabits this conceived space and all three spaces work together to create the actual city we know. But how well do we know fictional Bristol? When I first started searching for novels set in Bristol there were only a handful that would be offered as suggestions. These include Christopher Wakling’s the Devil’s Mask, Philippa Gregory’s A Respectable Trade, Jeffrey Acher’s Clifton Trilogy, Angela Carter’s Bristol Trilogy, Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall which had just won the Costa fiction award, Hayder Mo’s grisly tales and Chris Brown’s Guilty Tiger.

A year later I have tracked down 64 novels or sets of novels that are Bristolian in some way. They help create the conceived space of Bristol and they don’t seem to be much acknowledged for this.

I will review them one against one in 32 initial bouts to eliminate half and then proceed in this manner to find the winner of the tournament: that most Bristol of novels. The benefit won’t be in just discovering the final triumphant selection but in exploring what fictional Bristol tells us and others about our city and what elements the authors have taken and used. This is an examination of how writers create Bristol.

I find this a fascinating endeavour and I hope you will gain something from it as well. Many readers of this blog have helped me identify a lot of these works and it is due to you that I can do this.

Thank you.

Absolute Bristol in images