A surreal and troubling journey into painful childhood memories
Nettles by Adam Scovell
Publisher : Influx Press (7 April 2022)
Language : English
Paperback : 162 pages
ISBN-10 : 1910312738
ISBN-13 : 978-1910312735
A Book Review by Tony Jones
Nettles is the highly entertaining third novel of Adam Scovell who is widely published in an impressive range of magazines and newspapers including The Times, Sight and Sound, The Quiutus and Little White Lies. Scovell’s writing covers a wide range of subjects straddling the horror genre and many other cinematic topics which often use photography and touch upon nature and landscapes. In 2016 he wrote the critically acclaimed Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange and has a highly impressive CV which includes a PhD in Music from Goldsmiths University and runs the website Celluloid Wicker Man which give a fuller flavour of his interests. Back in 2019 we interviewed Adam in one of our Five Minutes With The Author features and that can be read here: https://gingernutsofhorror.com/interviews/five-minutes-with-author-adam-scovell Interestingly, at the time of writing the interview Adam was working on the “pitching draft” version of Nettles and I am delighted it found a home with the always excellent Influx Press.
I happened to review Adam’s debut novel Mothlight (2019) for Ginger Nuts of Horror and you can read the full feature here: https://gingernutsofhorror.com/fiction-reviews/book-review-mothlight-by-adam-scovell. Thematically Nettles covers some of the same territory as Mothlight, particularly childhood and the power of natural landscapes, perhaps as a form of escapism from the pain of the real world. Both books also utilise photography, with Nettles haunting black and white images taking the narrator back to the unhappy spell in his childhood upon which the story is built around.
Nettles is told via two storylines told twenty years apart, the first set in 2001 has the shadow of the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in the background which coincides with the month the unnamed narrator starts secondary school. The story kicks off on his first day in which he is savagely singled out and bullied. In the second timeline he is returning to the Merseyside area of Wallasey to visit his mother who is shortly relocating to Wales. The man who now lives in London is troubled by the return to his childhood home, which obviously has many ghosts and bad memories, and armed with his polaroid camera is attempting to reconcile himself with his past. The fact that he has gone out of his way to lose his distinct Merseyside accent show how much he disassociates himself with him childhood hometown.
If you were bullied at school or do not like reading about that subject then this brief but captivating novel might make uncomfortable reading and there are a lot of triggers. On his first day at secondary school, he is isolated and cornered by a group of boys, who obviously have a ringleader, and is savagely whipped on his bare legs by stinging nettles. From this first day onwards, the boy is earmarked as an easy target or victim and because of this he is restricted from making friendships and every day is a battle to avoid the bullies. None of the characters are ever named and the ringleader is always referred to as “Him” with many of the teachers being equally unpleasant. Was this really 2001? As It seemed more like something from the brutal sixties or seventies. But as we find out our memories can play tricks.
These school scenes positively crackled and one almost felt the boy was on a battlefield and the lulls in the action were during the lessons when he was out of reach from the bullies, however, during recess, break and lunch hostilities would resume. Getting home from school is another day survived, but by that stage he was already dreading the next. I went to school in the eighties and Nettles was so psychologically on the button it made me sweat. Growing up in the north of Scotland, I knew boys exactly like these bullies and vividly remember similar circumstances when isolated and outnumbered. This is always the way bullies operated. However, you reap what you sow and my mother has since told me that many of the most savage bullies from my year in school had premature ends, a couple very young. And coincidentally there is most definitely something of that in Nettles.
The story has a strange almost magical realism or dreamlike quality as he continues to struggle at school and in the playground he begins to hide in the marshland/mosslands under the nearby motorway and is attracted to a strange stone called Grannies Rock that sits on derelict land known as The Breck. This is key to the story as these places give him the inner strength to resist the bullies and not cry when attacked. This psychological battle of a child on the edge, who could not talk to his parents, was perfectly pitched and one would hope a similar plight in 2022 would attract attention, rather than being ignored as it was in 2001.
As in Mothlight memory plays a key role in Nettles. Is the narrator remembering things correctly? Should he truly be feeling guilt for something that occurred in 2001? I have vivid recollections of some of the events from my own childhood, but also recognise the fact that my memory can also play tricks on me and others recall shared events slightly differently. All of this plays a part in what is obviously a very personal novel by Adam Scovell. But is a Polaroid camera enough to lay to rest the ghosts of yesteryear and escape the past? It was a harrowing journey and I loved the unexpected beauty of the marshlands and the temporary sanctuary it gave him.
I sped through Nettles in a couple of sittings in what was a deceptively easy book to read, it was poetic, moving and a powerful exploration into the past. Did the narrator actually need to seek redemption or was his memory actually distorted from the traumatic events of when he was twelve years old? This quiet and introspective novel is highly recommended and may well have you thinking of pivotal childhood moments from your own past.