Earlier in the week, I promised you more about Catherine Fisher and her marvellous, heart-rending novel Corbenic. So, here you go.
Sometimes, I re-read Catherine Fisher’s books to remind myself why I love to write so much, and what I want – ideally – to achieve in a story of my own. I will never be as good a writer as Catherine Fisher, mainly because her work is so psychologically complex and her characters so layered that I fear I’d lose myself if I tried to write in so deep a way, but she’s one of the writers I look to for guidance. Corbenic is my favourite of the books I’ve read by her.
The novel introduces us to Cal, who is a teenager on the run, emotionally and literally. As his story opens he is on a Chepstow-bound train, impatient to begin a new life with his uncle Trevor who has offered him a job in his accountancy firm. Cal dreams of a clean home, a quiet existence, a job in which he can be successful, neat clothes, a good car and above all stability – the sense that there is only one reality, and that he is living in it, and that things are under his control.
He’d planned this for years; he’d made the break. Life would be different. His uncle would meet him in some big, flash car. He wouldn’t have to see her [his mother] any more. He wouldn’t have to hide the knives and the bottles ever again. (page 3)
Cal’s mother lives with mental illness (which, as the book progresses, we learn may be part of something larger), and she is vacant, distracted, an abuser of alcohol, a self-harmer, and utterly incapable of living life in the modern world. She loves Cal with all her heart, but she cannot take care of him. He has been her carer from early childhood, trying hard to pretend to the outside world that everything is fine, getting himself to school and washing and ironing his own clothes, trying to keep his mother from drinking away what is left of herself and keeping her from attempting suicide – again. When we first meet him, he has reached his breaking point. His mother is devastated that he is leaving – for Cal’s father left when Cal was two, and he never came back – and so she fears her son will do the same.
On the train, Cal is confused and sleepy and in unfamiliar country. He mistakenly gets off at the wrong stop – a tiny, abandoned-looking, dimly lit platform which proclaims itself to be ‘Corbenic’, a place Cal has never heard of. He can’t find a railway map anywhere, or a timetable, or even a telephone box – and he is too poor to own a mobile phone. He has no idea where he is, or where to go.
So, he does the only thing he can, which is start walking up the narrow, dark path which leads away from the station.
He comes upon a moonlit lake, upon which are two men in a boat who speak strangely to him. Amid their odd words is the instruction to keep walking – that the Castle Hotel is not far. So, Cal keeps walking, and sure enough he comes upon the hotel, which is sumptuous and warm and where he is made welcome. He is assured that everything is free, and that he need have no worries about paying for his room and board, and he is placed as the guest of honour at a banquet in the large hall.
During the banquet, something happens to Cal. He sees what he feels is a ‘vision’, brought on perhaps by a drink spiked with alcohol – for Cal doesn’t drink, and he rules himself with a rigid hand, never allowing his perfect façade to slip for even one second, for fear he becomes his mother – and when Bron, one of the men in the boat, who owns the castle and is sitting beside Cal at dinner, asks Cal to describe what he sees, he refuses. He lies, because he is afraid.
And the King – Bron, the Fisher King, who bears a grievous wound – looks at Cal with such sorrow and betrayal in his eyes, and everything changes.
Cal wakes up in a different place the following morning, finding that Bron has left him his sword, along with a note saying the blade will serve Cal as Cal has served him. Cold, and hungry, and confused, Cal struggles on – but no matter how ordered and perfect his life looks, or how hard he wants to work at his uncle’s business, or how much he wants to succeed, another life is pulling at his mind all the time.
A world of swords, and bleeding lances, and a grail carried in the hands of a slender girl. A wounded king. A Waste Land. And Cal, at the centre of it all.
I love this book not only because it is, basically, a retelling of the Grail myth, encompassing Percival/Parsifal, Arthur, Merlin, Gawain (here called Hawk or Hawk of May), and other members of the Round Table who are aware, on some level, that they are ‘immortal’, but also because it exists as a story separately from these elements. I have a reasonable knowledge of the tales around which Fisher has constructed her book, but I don’t know everything, and it doesn’t impact upon my ability to enjoy this book. I do believe you can read and love this tale without ever having heard of the Fisher King, or the Waste Land, or the Grail, simply because Cal and his real story, his abuse and neglect and pain, is so compelling. His journey to escape his past brings him full-circle until he is forced to face up to it, and it is in this aspect that the book really draws the reader in. Part of me really doesn’t like Cal; he can be selfish, and pig-headed, and even cruel, but there are reasons behind everything he does. He is nuanced and complicated and so real that he lives with you as you read his story, so flesh and blood that you feel you can take his hand. That’s some achievement, for a writer.
If you’re looking for a book which will live in your mind, and which will bring you on an unparallelled emotional journey, and which has layers so deep you’re almost afraid to look, then this is a good one to try. It’s remarkable.