Slip of a Fish is set within the persistent heat of a presciently irregular English summer. ‘The blue skies and heat go on,’ Amy Arnold writes. ‘Every evening at six thirty, the weatherman points to a map covered in oranges and reds and talks about high pressure and jet streams.’ Through the summer we follow Ash, the quick-thinking, word-punning protagonist. Often accompanied by her seven-year-old daughter Charlie, she explores her familiar rural surroundings. They climb trees, swim and hold their breath beneath the water. Ash pushes on, swimming with no thought of the energy needed to return, keeping her head under the water whilst Charlie watches nervously.
Ash’s husband Abbott is fixated by his latest material purchases; drawing attention to his new watch and mapping the progress of a skylight installation in their house. He exists mainly as adjudicator, chiding her absent-mindedness. It is Charlie who is Ash’s companion: ‘There she is. Charlie, light of my life, fire of my heart’. Charlie is a frequently dishevelled and quiet presence by Ash’s side.
The winner of And Other Stories’ inaugural Northern Book Prize, which was established to discover new authors based in the North of England, Arnold’s impressive debut is strange and dexterous. The pace of the book – short sentences, pared language – means the reader is pulled headfirst, sprinting after Ash. Inside Ash’s head, words are alive. She refers to her ‘collection’ – a mental list of words that please her. ‘I wanted “creepeth” for my collection,’ she decides. She takes ‘impromptu’ too, ‘the m, the p, the t’. Arnold has an ability to capture on the page a complex, obsessive mind without veering into pretention or convolution. Ash’s neurosis is haunting because Arnold contains it within an otherwise wordless protagonist. Ash has turned almost silent and, with her mouth tightly closed, the speed of her thoughts becomes claustrophobic.
Ash connects words, dissects them, and then digresses, following the patterns they evoke. Much of the book follows these connections. She is absorbed by language and grammar. Even when Ash stays still, there is something to ensnare her. She lies in bed, only to be obsessively distracted by a single hair lying on the sheets. ‘He likes his milk,’ a woman says to her about her child, and Ash’s thoughts bound:
I’ve heard Abbott say he likes his beer before. And whatever Abbott says about words, and whether or not they can drive you mad, people know what they’re doing with them. She meant his milk. That’s what she said. Possession means something, whatever Abbott says about words.
Words linger. Ash stores them up; both those spoken by others and her (unspoken) own. She is overwhelmed by dialogue. She reads a book and is furious by how ‘light’ it feels in her hands. She shakes it, then tells herself to stop shaking it. ‘I suppose I’d wanted to jar the words a little,’ she muses, ‘I suppose I’d wanted to unsettle them.’ She cannot understand how words that disarm her can sit so quietly, so gently upon the page.
The heat of the summer becomes overbearing and Ash struggles through her ordinary routine, overwhelmed by the sound of the fridge, exhausted by her own head. The book’s plot doesn’t change, moving from one quotidian activity to another – now she is swimming, now she is walking, now she is looking through a window – but the activity within Ash’s mind intensifies. Words knock Ash off-balance. She stumbles, surges, slips. Arnold’s navigation of this mental confusion is deft, and she builds momentum not through quickening plot, but through Ash’s growing confusion. The ‘same sky, the same sun’ appear each day, but each time Ash experiences them as more oppressive than the day before.
Arnold weaves episodes of abuse and trauma throughout the book, none of which Ash wants to think about. Memories of past hurt repeat and taunt her. She remembers her affair with Kate – a woman who she still obsesses over. Mentions of ‘Papa’ recur. At times there are dangerous hints of past experience: ‘there was only breath, coming out from my chest, and Papa.’
Then, amidst the broken weather, Ash sexually abuses Charlie. It is sudden, and almost instantly Ash works to suppress it, keep it down. In doing so, she sinks further into incomprehension. Arnold skilfully delineates Ash’s path from abused to abuser and suggests how past trauma comes to bear on the present. From the beginning of the book, we have been encouraged to sympathise with Ash. But when she commits the wrong she will not speak of (but always returns to), we are provoked into discomfort. Yet still we go on hearing her thoughts, seeing through her eyes, even as we recoil. ‘Can you still sympathise?’ the book asks. Slip of a Fish is tauntingly immersive.
After the event, Ash’s relationship with her daughter cannot be the same. The ‘heavy’ sky only grows heavier, the heat more oppressive. Arnold’s language crescendos as Ash loses grip. The recurrence of Kate in her head seeps out into her material existence. ‘Kate followed me all the way home,’ she observes, ‘I heard her footsteps under the wind.’ Her thoughts overlap and confuse.
I was sure. I was standing at her door, I was sure, was shore, and swam. I swam towards her as soon as I knew. I thought she was OK, and it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t meant to hurt if you don’t mean it that way and who was it who said that? The first time, I mean.
The language intensifies through sparse sentences and ideas which are broken down or combined. Ash seeks to evade the significant experiences of the novel, but in doing so she can rest on nothing. She resists her own reality. The flippancy of her thoughts, the speed that they travel at, is like running past something you want to avoid. You get past, but you pass it nonetheless. Blurred, distorted, but there. This is how she resists both the actions taken against her, and the actions she takes against her daughter. She sprints and glimpses, the movement leaving her unstable. Arnold compacts Ash’s linguistic connections so they arrive quicker and quicker, until it seems Ash is supported only by the flow of language. It’s raining – rain – reins – ‘Abbott’s loosened the rains’. The meaning becomes nonsensical, and yet, Arnold has trained the reader to see the sense Ash sees. Ash is undone by her own mind, but by the end of the novel, it is a mind the reader fully inhabits and is close to understanding.
Ash’s linguistic flexibility gives play and musicality to a book that is deeply heavy. The jester-like flow of puns and word associations is at times disturbingly childish. Ash returns to thoughts of committing abuse, only to desperately try and change direction. As the novel draws to a close, her desperation becomes fatal. Unlike her collection, where she gathers words willingly, with trauma she cannot choose. It seeps in, it collects and it takes over.