Friday, July 23, 2010

A Forgotten Author, Found

(Editor’s note: In association with The Rap Sheet’s ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books, editor J. Kingston Pierce asked English thriller writer Christopher Fowler -- best known for his Arthur Bryant and John May/Peculiar Crimes mysteries [Bryant & May Off the Rails] -- if he would like to suggest an unjustly overlooked title of his own. Fowler kindly sent back the piece below, which, because it focuses on work unrelated to crime fiction, seems more appropriately placed in January Magazine than in our sister blog.)

I write a column in Britain’s The Independent On Sunday newspaper called Forgotten Authors, wherein I track down authors who have dropped out of sight. It requires two kinds of detective work; I track down the authors, but if you’re interested you then have to locate the books.

I’ve been shocked by the number of writers who have produced more than 100 books, only to vanish from print. After seeing the pattern repeated, it starts to feel like a conspiracy. Marjorie Bowen, for example, managed at least 150 volumes but was until recently represented on Amazon by one anthology of short stories and a cigarette card. Readers don’t forget, only bookshops, and I rely on fans to notify me about their favorite absent authors. It’s gratifying to report that a few novels reappeared after my column began, using my quotes. The superbly odd Gladys Mitchell is back in beautiful editions courtesy of Vintage Press, while Virago, Persephone, Tartarus and other dedicated publishers are reviving writers who’ve been trapped by changing tastes and times.

Throughout this process, one author continued to block further investigation. I knew the supposedly Australian-born Maryann Forrest was someone to check out when I read a description of her in Time Out magazine as “a stunning writer, so superb and alive a talent.” Then Anthony Burgess picked up on her first and only major novel, describing it as “deeply disturbing” but “a keen literary pleasure.” Here (Away from It All) is an adult Lord of the Flies tale involving wealthy holidaymakers instead of schoolchildren. A Greek island has been ruined by opportunistic tourism; overrun with timeshares and package tours, its natives have been marginalized and employed as service personnel, in which roles they are treated as nothing more than servants. One day an unspecified world event occurs which ends all contact with the island, so that the ferry no longer arrives with supplies. Foreign currency is suddenly rendered worthless. Hotel guests find themselves paying their bills with watches, rings and necklaces. But when the material goods run out, they need something else to barter with. And as the rules of civility become ever more strained, the islanders start to exact their revenge, first in a gruesome football match, then by taking the holidaymakers’ houses away from them. Soon the tourists find that the only way left to pay their bills is with the lives of their children.

The protagonist, a young mother, watches in horror as the unnamed island -- the world in microcosm -- breaks down into rebellion and anarchy. The revengers have Greek names but there is no racism here, because a silver thread of humanity runs through the characters, thus refusing easy demonization, and the heroine remains upbeat even as all hope fades. The tale is post-apocalyptic and descends inexorably to a horrifying climax, but is written from a deeply personal viewpoint. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is probably the only book that comes close in its bleak subject matter. Published in 1969, Here feels alarmingly prescient, but when I tried to find out more about its author I drew a total blank. One editor suggested that she had actually escaped the world by moving to the Greek island described in her novel, but this seems unlikely as there are two other books, Us Lot (1970) and Immaculate Misconception (1972), written within three years of her first. It appears she was using a pseudonym, and although there were plenty of Maryann Forrests listed in the Australian electoral rolls, the trail ran cold after that. The books can still be found cheaply on the Internet, but there are no reprints. I published the piece on this author, and asked in print rather forlornly if anyone might be able to help me in my quest.

A few weeks after raising the question of what had happened to Maryann Forrest and her brilliant first novel, I received a letter which began, “My first husband came across your piece about Maryann Forrest, asking if anyone knows where she is. Yes, I know, for I am she. Come to lunch.”

I visited Maryann, real name Polly Hope, to discover she was a visual artist and opera librettist, living in London’s Spitalfields in the dead center of the city, where, surrounded by the towers of the financial district, she thrives in her graceful art-filled studio house, along with four dogs, a cat, chickens and friends. She told me she had adopted an alias (she had an Australian grandmother) to write the novel. Polly was living in Greece during the period of the military junta (1967-1974), and would very likely have faced deportation upon the publication of the novel. This raises an idea I hadn’t considered: perhaps other authors were also successful polymaths who simply sought to pursue varied careers. Polly covered her tracks so successfully that her three books are tough to find, but she has an unfinished novel waiting, so I’ll end optimistically and ask a publisher to rediscover her uniquely powerful voice.


Blogger Martin Edwards said...

Absolutely fascinating. A book I now want to read very much!

Friday, July 23, 2010 at 2:58:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 60s I read "Here" when it was at the Coronado Public Library in California. But it is no longer there, and it is no longer in even San Diego library. I really liked that story, it was ever better than "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy is now. I sure would like to find a copy of "Here" (the subtitle in the first and only edition was "Away from it All" at least not that I saw in the book jacket or title page. Anyone knows please let me know. I'll keep checking this site in case.

Friday, November 5, 2010 at 2:50:00 PM PDT  

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