Babysitting Brecht

Amy Arnold – Slip of a Fish (& Other Stories, 2018)

I didn’t think I’d write this review. When a book frustrates and perplexes me as much as Amy Arnold’s award winning Slip of a Fish did on first reading, I avoid, as a rule, translating this experience into review form.

But here I am, reviewing. It is the day after finishing the book and I find that sections of it are still rattling around in my mind. Certain obtuse imagery refuses to be buried. I find myself missing Arnold’s surprising prose and her protagonist’s, at times very frustrating, voice.

It’s the sensation you get from Brecht. I feel provoked. I Googled other reviews and wonder why they weren’t provoked too.

Slip of a Fish presents the internal monologue of Ash, mother of Charlie, a woman with an obsession with language befitting an Award-Winning Novel’s protagonist (you will find a similar obsession shared by every protagonist on the Booker shortlist). Ash is an outsider in the suburbs, a victim when it comes to sexual advances, and, judging by her interior monologue, is experiencing some form of psychosis. So far, so literary.

The rub comes when Arnold oversteps the unspoken boundaries of boundary-pushing fiction. Her protagonist, obsessing over her daughter, appears to rape her (although the monologue leaves this unclear). When she cheats on her husband with a bisexual, yoga-teaching female lover the experience is portrayed as a rather joyless by-product of her fixated personality.

It was in thinking about these oversteps that I realised the real subversive power of this novel. In its own, obtuse, quasi-Brechtian manner, it both contains and disrupts the usual progressive beats by which we currently measure successful literary fiction.

In Slip of a Fish, Motherhood is plagued by incest. Bisexual polyamory is haunted by the dual ghosts of fidelity and sexual predation.

Even Arnold’s language seems constructed with a willingness to provoke in mind; perhaps even an enthusiasm for it. The sequence preceding the potential rape features Ash swimming far out into the local body of water, losing herself in the experience of wading and paddling, overwhelmed by a Kate Chopin-esque disassociation as she immerses herself in the water.

As she wades further out, becoming freer and freer, we hear her six-year-old daughter crying and screaming at the lakeside. She is terrified of her mother leaving her alone, slipping away forever.

Arnold picks this moment of all moments to introduce compulsive repetition into Ash’s internal monologue. She describes each experience three times. Three times she’ll explain it. It will get explained on three separate occasions.

As a reader, I couldn’t get over how grating this technique was, and how often she was using it. It just kept coming, again and again, in every other paragraph, sometimes more.

I’m definitely not reviewing this book, I told myself. I’ll never find anything nice to say about it.

But now, after the fact, I realise Arnold’s provocative power. What better way to emphasise a character’s self-obsession than to reflect on a formal level her entirely self-absorbed mentality? Arnold creates paragraphs that strain the reader’s patience, anger them even, at just the same moment that this seemingly liberated mother is abandoning and traumatising her child.

When Ash finally returns to dry land, kisses her crying child and opens up her legs, Arnold has perfectly prepared us for our disgust.

As I say, I’ve not found this reading experience reflected in any other reviews. It may be that I am projecting my own lack of progressivism onto a text that, in other eyes, is a celebration of motherhood. The marketing blurb certainly makes it out to be this kind of novel. That it might be more complex than that, however – more provocative, more chilling even – excites me a lot.

It’s the kind of book that would be great for a reading group. A challenging read, ambiguous enough for a range of perspectives to interpret. I challenge you, my fair reader, to read it too, and then tell me exactly why I’m wrong about it.

– Joe Darlington