It’s almost impossible to assess Fall, a novel of mystic style and sensibility, set in what we would dismiss these days as an abandoned concrete jungle. Author West Camel tackles timeless themes of truth, power, family and justice, and places them firmly in the present day and two decades leading up to 1977, and gives us something complex, unique and beautiful.
Craig and Aaron are twins. Annette and Christine are twins. In 1976, the boys live with their mother, Zoe, an award-winning architect, in the social housing tower block that Zoe designed. They are 18 years old, with their lives ahead of them. By 2021, Aaron remains in the same flat; Craig is a developer and the pair have communicated only through their lawyers since 1977. But now things have come to a head. What in 1976 seemed like the future – whether in the young lives of our characters or the architecture in which they lived – now looks like the past.
I’m not normally a fan of the dual time-narrative technique. In the crime fiction genre it can often be too intrusive and jarring, placing obvious barriers to the reader’s knowledge and showing that the writer is boss. Camel pulls it off; even in one case where you feel he’s been sleight-handed you forgive him for it. Craig and Aaron have to peel away the layers of their demonry. As they do so, Camel describes the long, humid summer of 1976. Tower blocks, then, were teeming: with the energy of the young, with the effects of the elements, with the growth of reggae and the advent of punk. But women in the workplace faced a discrimination that was only slowly changing. And inner cities had an open, casual level of racism that would become largely unchallenged within our society until more recently.
We know that something bad happens: that a summer that begins with rites of passage would end in some way tragically. We wonder perhaps what could be so bad. What is revealed justifies the set up and is absolutely earned by what we have learned so far. It isn’t so much what has happened but what it has meant for each of the characters and our good friends truth, power, family and justice. The idea of two sets of twins gives Camel the chance to play with different points of view early on, before the notion that some of these narratives might not be utterly reliable. Turns out that most people are telling the truth as they see it. Maybe. The two sides in the contemporary planning dispute certainly don’t see eye to eye. Twins help us discover how secrets are formed and the acidic effects they can have.
The character of Zoe, the matriarchitect, if you will, calls into question the idea of an omniscient, benevolent being watching over us. Zoe is definitely omniscient, having built into her tower block little secret features known only to her. (I am pretty sure that the South London tower blocks with which I was familiar in the 1970s did not have these features, which include a secret helter-skelter and a mini-theatre.) She has precise ideas about how people will live. The people will disappoint her, just as her husband has disappointed her, just as society discriminated against her. She sets her children up with specific ‘talents’ as the Bible would have it, before disappearing, and those talents will dominate their lives five decades later. The ramifications live long beyond her actions and remain with the reader long after the final pages are turned. In a few fourth-wall interventions, Camel asks us what we see and how we interpret it. Are we complicit, in our own families and in our own fights against injustice? Do we move on? Do we get stuck?
Free will among the concrete blocks. Tolstoy and Our Friends in the North. Time-travel. Fall has it all. It’s an extraordinary read looking at the most ordinary facets of human life.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.