Home, sweet home, or not as the case may be…

Wall Of Daysby Alastair Bruce

A man stands on a rocky outcrop, watching the sea-green water. He is called Bran. He survives alone on a small island just big enough to sustain him where he has lived for ten years ever since he was banished from his homeland. Life on his rain-soaked island is hard, but there are fish, tubers, roots and the occasional gull to eat; there is peat for the fire, and a cave to live in. The resources are decreasing, but are enough, he calculates, to see his time out.

At the end of each day I make a small mark with a stone on the wall of the cave. The seventh line I draw crosses the previous six. At the end of fifty-two of these plus one extra mark or two extra every fourth year I start a new row. Last night I reached the end of the tenth. Tonight I will start another. Every year with the last of the marks I remember being told why we measure time this way – with one or two eatra days in a year – but every year I realise I have forgotten the reason. I imagine it is something to do with the moon, the moon I have not seen for a decade. So much of what I do, of what we used to do, is for reasons that I cannot remember, that I dare say no one can remember.

Marks on a wall. The second time in my life I have made marks on a wall. They mean more than days. I do not forget that.

Bran had been Marshall of the settlement that bore his name.  He had a lover, Tora, whom he misses still; he wonders what has happened to her, and whether Abel, his deputy, is still in charge. Bran was banished by his community, set adrift on a raft, exiled.  Return, they said, would mean execution. But one day, something happens. Bran feels compelled to return to his settlement to warn them that they’re in danger, and he cuts down some of his precious few remaining trees to build another raft …

We’re never told where this world is, but we know that something happened, both in the far past where most of mankind has been wiped out, and in the recent past where Bran appears to be answerable to some unforgivable acts as leader. The remaining people have reverted back to a life that is rather like that of a frontier town in a Western or a medieval town – there is no technology, even ancient left here.

Ten years as a hermit have naturally taken their toll on Bran, and it is fair to say that he is not the most reliable narrator, but he does have a sense of duty as former Marshall to his former people.  He understands why they think he betrayed them, he acknowledges the guilt, but he was only doing it for their own good. He is desperate to find out what has happened in his absence and still holds a torch for Tora. Once he returns though his efforts to warn them of the dangers he thinks will come and his search for answers are totally frustrating, he cannot find an audience.

This novel is strangely beautiful in its way, but like an iceberg, what lies beneath the understated prose in this drowned world, is a complex web of emotions – guilt and betrayal, love and loss, the power of memories. Even though we know that Bran has probably done bad things, we sympathise with him as he tries to atone for them, and we hope he’ll find a way to get through and maybe even find his true love again. This assured debut has hidden depths, and manages to be a thoughtful yet compelling read. (8/10)

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Wall Of Days by Alastair Bruce, pub Clerkenwell Press, Aug 2011, 237 pages, trade paperback.

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