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“Saturday. First light is a fresh yolk dashed across the Pennines – an orange line that turns the edges of morning pink. But there’s always a fragility to sunshine over the moors – a pregnancy. Because for everyone here, everyone nearby, warm weather on these hills is just weather waiting to relapse.”
The Folded Man confirms Matt Hill’s prodigious talent for both his literary prowess and imagination. The novel takes aspects of many genres and combines them with staccato sentences that punch with such precision that the experience of reading the novel borders on the delirious. Quite simply, The Folded Man reads like Coetzee with ADHD.
Just the concept can stagger the mind – Brian is a lonely man living in a Britain that has been devastated by war, as nationalism runs rampant and divides races and creeds. It’s a stunning debut, inside which Hill has created an equally memorable dystopian world.
Such darkness can only seep into the macabre ensemble. Brian, legs fused together due to a medical condition known as Sirenomelia, is bound to his wheelchair and pursues a life of drugs and sexual gratification in seedy brothels. He believes he is a mermaid, cursed by his legs being bonded together at birth. Brian hates his life and seems to punish himself regularly in ways that verge on body horror.
“On these powdered rocks, the mermaid throne. A throne in his six foot sea. He reaches for the skimmer, begins to fish bits of himself from the surface. For Brian, in the bath downstairs and bleeding, the pink water holds a charge – an alternating current he’s found for free.”
Brian, when his anti-social existence is disturbed by the necessity to socialise, often dabbles in the wrong crowds, as seen in Noah, the drug dealing, foul mouthed cretin that pushes Brian into an awkward situation that holds the pivotal plot points.
“But Noah is shouting and swearing, isn’t he. Driving faster. You fuck this up for me I’ll swing for you, he shouts, hurling them at sixty towards the hair appointment in the centre of town. Balls this up and we’ll have ourselves a big fall out.”
Plot takes the supporting role to the fascinating world that Hill has created, and the novel never needs to look back. Hill’s main focus Britain’s social decline after the riots which are fictional but seem inspired by summer 2011, and battles fought over skin colour “We’re only joshing, you know, he says. Got to look out for these pakis an’t we?”
Racist themes fuel this ruined landscape and challenge societies perceptions of patriotism. Hill twists contemporary ethnocentrism and tribalism to a wonderful satirical end: we see men defending the borders to their counties with assault weapons, people of colour requiring a licence to go out during state imposed curfew. Hill has taken the preposterous and created a tense and oppressive world where it seems nobody matters any longer.
There is a maniacal streak that runs through the novel and this can be seen in both story and narration. The Folded Man blends elements of modern satire, speculative fiction and horror while using a narrative that is unique and also wonderfully intricate.
There is brooding detail and delicious dialogue but the novel is always remarkably changeable, picking up local dialects on the fly and switching styles as necessary. Hill handles these elements with skill and the result is never conflicting.
At one memorable point (of which there are many) Brian falls from his wheelchair and is left helpless next to a canal in pounding rain. He is set upon by ravenous pigeons that decide to feast on his conjoined legs. Within this small moment, every nuance of the novel is apparent; from the dark humour to the distressing state of the world. It sums up life at its lowest in a world of constant, ubiquitous aggression. This moment is genuinely harrowing and helps to elevate a dark tension that lingers throughout.
“Brian leans forward, shouts, Fuck you, and reaches into his top pocket as the first bird strikes his webbed toes. Brian takes out that last corner of sniff. A finger in, a finger out, a finger in his nose. Enough to take off the sting. Enough to tighten his grip. Just water left, now. And the birds take chunks off his shins. The birds screaming with war, their beaks shining with the red and the wet, his blanket torn a little more.”
The Folded Man is a novel worth being passionate about.