A woman living in a lifeless, depressing seaside town wakes one night to find a blank piece of paper has been slipped beneath the door to her room. The woman, Susan, lives above the pub where she works. Hers is an unsatisfactory, depressing existence that, we soon learn, is the creation of another woman, Bonnie Falls, who also works an unsatisfactory, depressing job in a lifeless, depressing town in the Midlands, where she writes stories on the side but rarely finishes them. Death and the Seaside establishes this dynamic in its opening pages. Bonnie’s life mirrors Susan’s in respect of the small details one might expect an author to impart to her character. Both are smokers, have a weakness for junk food, share certain ways of observing the world, and so on. They differ in one crucial regard, however. The motorcycle-riding, restless, adventure-hungry Susan is far more independent and motivated than her creator, whose life is governed largely by inertia. Bonnie, approaching thirty, is moving out of her parents’ house (at their request) having moved back there after dropping out of university some years prior to the action of the novel. She drifts between menial jobs without direction or ambition, has a nugatory social and non-existent love life, and this static existence has rendered her unable to provide the necessary forward motion to progress Susan’s story.
The weak and ineffectual Bonnie has a tendency to allow stronger personalities to ride roughshod over her. These include her parents, co-workers, boss, and her new landlady, Sylvia Slythe. Sylvia differs from the others, however, in that she takes an oddly aggressive interest in Bonnie and her writing, encouraging her to continue with her story, to the point of arranging for the two of them to go on holiday to the coastal village that was the inspiration for Susan’s fictional home.Once they arrive, Bonnie begins to experience stranger and more pronounced parallels with Susan’s life. Gradually, more is revealed about Sylvia’s motivations and her plans for Bonnie, building to a denouement that employs some deft narrative slight-of-hand, using the novel’s structural principle to deliver the promised death while maintaining a sense of surprise.
While the subject matter of a frustrated writer echoing her character and the motif of life-imitating-art-imitating-life may sound as if the novel is an exercise in metafiction or fictocriticism, Death and the Seaside only ever flirts with elements of those genres. It never goes full John Barth, always remaining firmly grounded in the central drama played out between Bonnie and Sylvia. At one point, Sylvia summarises Bonnie’s notes for her uncompleted English literature thesis on imagery of the sea in fiction. Later, she recounts the trajectory her own academic career. Both these excursions are fully researched and referenced to actual sources, but they are fairly incidental to the plot. Most readers will either find them the most interesting moments in the book or skip over them altogether. Less than metafiction, in its intermittent preoccupation with critical theory and psychoanalysis, as well as the muted, detached quality of its prose, the novel often recalls the French nouveau roman, though again in its stylistic flourishes rather than in anyspirit of experimentalism. With the English coastal setting, the effect is rather like Duras does Dismaland.
Moore can be heavy-handed occasionally. Her depictions of Bonnie’s parents are fairly two-dimensional, particularly Bonnie’s father, who is never any further fleshed out than the bare minimum required for him to perform his dramatic function. Narrative threads are dropped and either not revisited at all or only very cursorily resolved. Early in the novel, some space is devoted to the development of the relationship between Bonnie and her co-worker, Chi, who is subsequently written out without much explanation, only to be replaced with another character, Fiona, who performs a substantially similar role in the story. I am at a loss to see what was the point of that exercise.
At other times, however,there are clever, subtle pleasures to be found. Bonnie’s susceptibility to suggestion is a major theme of the book.In one unremarkable moment when Bonnie explores her new flat, amidst an accumulation of other incidents, she finds a shopping list left by a previous tenant with the instruction “Buy Wotsits”. They are, as she reflects at the time, not at all a staple of her diet, yet she is found snacking upon them a couple of chapters later in a casually dropped detail. It is these kinds of gestures that chiefly recommend Moore’s writing and there are many of them throughout the novel.
This is not a work of great ambition. Moore may well be capable of a major artistic statement, but this is not it. Death and the Seaside is brief, focused, and (for the most part) tightly constructed. It comes as no surprise to find that the novel is an expanded reworking of a short story – Bonnie’s story, in fact. It has the conceptually concentrated feel of short form fiction, though it has been given space to grow to the greatest dimensions it is able to reach, like a pot plant transferred to the garden. On these terms, it has succeeded. It will never dwarf the oak tree, but it has nonetheless borne fruit.
Death and the Seaside was published by Salt Publishing on 1st August 2016.
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Review by Gareth Dickson