Jeremy Page's The Wake addresses family tragedy with emotionally unflinching finesse.
We've all had them: those "what if" moments where the world seems to change on the turn of the breeze. Impossibly small moments that seem to reroute a life, where lingering for a coffee at a station can turn into a chance encounter; where deciding to stop off for a paper means that, in the 10 seconds it took to talk to the newsagent, you avoided the car accident outside. In the English novelist Jeremy Page's heartbreaking second novel, the pivotal moment is something as simple as the main characters, Guy and Judy, choosing the wrong field to show their four-year-old child a dazzling raindrop on a horseradish leaf. A wild-eyed stallion rears up. It snorts, charges and, in that single moment, a family is destroyed.
This is the first chapter of The Wake: as gripping, cinematic, terrifying and poetic a start to a book as is possible. But this novel is far more than a button-pushing family melodrama. "What I very deliberately didn't want to do was write about that life-changing moment's immediate aftermath," says Page. "You're expecting to go into this volatile, troubling period straight afterwards, but I was more interested in what might happen five years later. I didn't want a bleak or overly emotional book. I wanted to try and tease out what happens to people when they stoically carry on. When something dramatic like that happens you're fundamentally changed: for me, it's about investigating how Guy deals with himself as much as the situation he is in."
So, rather than an emotive funeral scene, the reader is then plunged into the North Sea. Guy is alone on a coastal barge he now calls home - dealing, as Page says, with no one but himself. It is left until much later for the endgame on the fateful day in the field to be revealed, but there is a quiet horror to be found in working it out for yourself. In the meantime, Guy seems almost to be testing himself against the elements. Here, Page's landscape writing, which in his first book, Salt, won him so many plaudits, emerges. Salt was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Jelf First Novel Award. The Man Booker Prize judge Rose Tremain said that Page captured the East Anglian landscapes he grew up in "with a truly deft, watercolourist's touch".
"Guy's life has a solitary danger on the boat, and he's always looking for what's beyond the frontier," explains Page. "I did have a moment with The Wake where Guy wasn't on the sea at all, he was travelling in deserts - I love that landscape. It was working, but not quite gelling and it took me some time to realise that, really, I was writing about the sea. "That inevitably brought it back to East Anglia for me, because that's where I grew up. Really, that is our frontier in Britain: we don't have deserts or jungles, immense snow-capped mountain ranges or huge wildernesses - but as an island we do have this incredibly dangerous, unknown territory in the sea. I grew up half a mile from it in north Norfolk, and so, in a sense, half my maps were blue. Or in my case, grey. You find you can very quickly go out of your comfort zone. I'll swim a bit too far off shore and suddenly think, 'Hang on, I'm slightly in trouble here,' or I'll go out in a boat and the weather will dramatically change."
Both of Page's novels have been set in East Anglia - a rural expanse of eastern England which many dismiss as being flat and uninspiing. Page believes the landscape, with its muddy estuaries and damp inlets, its huge skies and hedgerowed fields, has a meditative power, and it certainly informs his books. Is there not a danger, though, of him becoming an East Anglian writer first and a fiction writer second?
"I believe I'm more non-specific than that - with a feel for a place rather than necessarily being about that place," he says. "And people don't criticise Margaret Atwood when she writes about Toronto, or John Updike when he set his books in Pennsylvania, do they? That's because, really, there's nothing wrong with going back to places you know well again and again - as long as you fit new characters and new stories into those places. It suited them, it gave their books an authenticity and, to be honest, I think it suits me."
In any case, vast swathes of the book are not set in East Anglia, but on a road trip through the southern states of America. It is here that The Wake perhaps earns its literary chops. The reader is suddenly transported into a family holiday, with Judy and their now grown-up daughter, which we soon realise is a figment of Guy's imagination. The only way he can cope with the way his life has changed is to write an imagined diary, "to have these things alive, whenever you want them".
It's an ambitious approach. Everyone has struggled at some point with a book that employs dream sequences, or split narratives, or goes off on huge tangents, and The Wake is so real, so moving in its depiction of Guy struggling with his solitude and the sea, that the "imagined Guy" could easily have been a page-skimming distraction. It is to Page's credit that this does not happen. The diary entries beautifully reflect and enhance the "real" story.
"I often get itchy as a reader when I come across books which have that device, because I nearly always prefer one bit to the other - and it's usually the scenario you came across first. And there is the potential for someone to really like Guy's imagined life in America or his 'real' life in East Anglia, or vice versa. So I spent quite a lot of time making sure that they didn't stand apart and clash, that they reflected on each other and provided a different kind of excitement.
"So where Guy's real life has that solitary danger, the diary section has travel, reinvention, a family dynamic. It was important to me to mix emotional journey with literal journey and that happens in the diary, especially with the family's downhill arc." Page was travelling across America with his wife while writing the diary section and used the locations in the novel. The reason it really works, though, is that these narrative strands don't stand apart from each other. Instead, they are expertly woven into a propulsive story - Guy will have a bad day and hope to cure it with the diary. "There's a deeper level to all that too," Page adds. "It's also very much a novel about how writing can reinvent and reinvigorate - Guy reimagines his life through writing, I think.
"I'm very much like Guy in the way he seeks to understand himself through diary writing. I absolutely cannot map out a story in advance - I have to see which way the narrative is going by first seeing it and then writing it. For me it's almost a hallucinatory experience." The final chapters of The Wake are as open-ended as the first chapters are firm and absolute. It would be cruel to spoil the book's twists and turns, but suffice it to say that Guy meets an alluring Icelandic woman and her daughter on the Suffolk estuary where his boat is moored. They, it transpires, are on a life-affirming journey of their own.
"I was quite interested in why we don't take the choices in life that we should," says Page. "It happens time and time again. We know that following a certain course would make us happier but somehow we can't do it. I know that in my own life and in the lives of people I know and love. Sometimes it's not as easy as saying to yourself: 'I'm a little unhappy, these are the things I need to do to rectify that, and now I'm going to do them.' People manoeuvre more crudely than that I think. So although Guy has continued his life he's in this place where he can't take advantage of the possibilities life can give. He's stuck.
"If you look at it, The Wake gives the appearance of having a happy ending, it has that veneer of niceness. But the background is horrible. In that way, I suppose it is a sad book but it's not about sadness. It's just as much about reinvention and taking or missing opportunities; about being slightly enthralled by that part of your life which is difficult and challenging." All of which prompts the slightly uncomfortable question: how much of this emotionally unflinching book is based on the author's reality? "I know this might sound odd, because one of the things I'm most proud of is that realness, but I genuinely haven't been in these scenarios myself," Page says. "But as I say, we've all had moments where we're aware that life could have changed dramatically, and that's where it all came from. And yet weirdly, almost immediately after finishing the book I did get stuck in a field with a couple of very young and belligerent horses. Life, for a horrible time, suddenly imitated art.
"It was a completely bizarre experience, because in a way I'd already played out the scene and knew what to do because I'd written about it. I had that same sense of 'this is stupid', that Guy has, a real awareness of having no time to think or act or even decide upon a course of action - but at the same time knowing I had to do something. It was very startling and unpleasant." So what did you do? "I legged it and jumped over a gate," Page says, then laughs. Thankfully, The Wake is never that prosaic.
The Wake (Penguin) is out now.