Thursday 19 June 2014

In Pursuit of Narrative - 'That Dark Remembered Day', by Tom Vowler.

I may be a day late here - but I am delighted to welcome Tom Vowler to the blog again, this time to celebrate publication of his second novel, 'That Dark Remembered Day', which is a terrific and thought-provoking read, and published today by Headline. 

One family, one town, devastated by one tragic event.
Can you ever know what those closest to you are really capable of?
When Stephen gets a phone call to say his mother isn't well, he knows he must go to her straight away. But he dreads going back there. He has never been able to understand why his mother chose to stay in the town he grew up in, after everything that happened. One day's tragic events years before had left no one living there untouched.
Stephen's own dark memories are still poisoning his life, as well as his marriage. Perhaps now is the time to go back and confront the place and the people of his shattered childhood. But will he ever be able to understand the crime that punctured their lives so brutally? How can a community move on from such a terrible legacy?

Tom Vowler

 I was lucky enough to receive a pre-pub copy - and once started, it really is one of those bools that grabs you gently - and won't let you go until you finish it. A page-turner, beautifully written, with extraordinary descriptive passages acting as counterpoint to a compelling story. Don't take my word for it though - here's a review... 
certainly the most engrossing and intriguing book I have read recently."

I am an avid birdwatcher (who knew...? and peregrine falcons are among my favourite birds. I've just spent hours enjoying a webcam high on Norwich cathedral, watching young peregrines mustering the courage to leave the nest for the first time - a magical experience. And as a recurring motif throughout the novel happens to be peregrine falcons, lo! an extra layer of delight. Tom generously agreed to write a guest post talking about the influence of one particular book, and the genesis of his marvellous novel. 

Congrats Tom. Here's to 'That Dark Remembered Day'. May it fly high. And welcome to the blog. Over to you...

Nothing sustains us when we fall.
      J A Baker, The Peregrine

My ambition for That Dark Remembered Day, beyond goals concerning narrative, resonance of voice and compelling characterisation, was to achieve a greater sense of lyricism in the work, in particular to produce a part-meditation on aspects of fatherhood, war and landscape, specifically the natural world. In other words the book was to have a far less urgent plot to that of my first novel. This time tension was to be sustained, not from unfolding action alone, but via an initial declaration of a tragic event, the details of which are promised but held back until the book’s dénouement. Whilst not abandoning a conventional narrative arc entirely, my focus was increasingly drawn by language, by the book’s sense of enquiry, and how this more literary approach could affect the reader as the layers were peeled back. In short, I wanted to challenge the reader more. 
During the early part of composition I became increasingly influenced by J.A. Baker’s iconic non-fiction work, The Peregrine, with its remarkable use of language and paean to the natural world, in particular the eponymous bird of prey. What seduced me, aside from the extraordinary linguistic richness, was Baker’s often elegiac tone and how this alluded to the narrator’s own (often mournful) state of mind, despite his feelings being almost entirely absent in the text, other than a rich cataloguing of the observed day.  As Robert MacFarland says in the foreword, ‘The Peregrine is a book where nothing happens, again and again’, yet somehow Baker is able to maintain a sense of drama and intensity – pace, even – all the same. Indeed, the book achieves, if not a narrative arc, then a sort of melancholic fabled quality, as the reader follows Baker’s pursuit of two wintering peregrines one year (in fact the book is now known to be a condensed account of ten winters’ worth of entries posing as one). Here Baker reveals the emergence of his obsession:

She drifted idly; remote, inimical. She balanced in the wind, two thousand feet above, while the white cloud passed beyond her and went across the estuary to the south. Slowly her wings curved back. She slipped smoothly through the wind, as though she were moving forward on a wire. This mastery of the roaring wind, this majesty and noble power of flight, made me shout aloud and dance up and down with excitement. Now, I thought, I have seen the best of the peregrine; there will be no need to pursue it further; I shall never want to search for it again. I was wrong of course. Once can never have enough. 
By now I had my architecture for the novel: its structure, the characters, a sense of how it would all play out. But there was something missing, and it was reading Baker’s immersive, chimeric book that shone a light on my central character’s lack of emotional intensity. A returning war veteran, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, his horrific experiences have a terrible impact on the whole family, as each one tells their tale. But I was also keen to explore how this was experienced by the soldier himself. In giving him Baker’s obsession with the peregrine and affection for the natural world, I was able to employ a much closer narration, one that allows the reader an intimate insight into my character’s unhinging, which is mirrored in his pursuit of the falcon. 
And so a trio of fixations began to coalesce: Baker’s quest to observe the bird, my character’s mimicking of this, and my own fascination with The Peregrine, which I would tuck into with relish each evening by the fire. I wouldn’t go so far as to term my novel’s relationship with Baker’s book as intertextual, but it certainly owes it a huge debt. I had found my soldier’s voice.

Tom Vowler is a novelist and short story writer living in south west England. His debut collection, The Method, won the Scott Prize in 2010 and his novel What Lies Within received critical acclaim. He is co-editor of the literary journal Short Fiction and lectures in creative writing. That Dark Remembered Day is his second novel.


  1. Beaultifully lyrical blog post, Tom! Smashing intro, too, Vanessa!

  2. Sounds great! Congrats to Tom -- I'm off to order it now. And thanks, Vanessa, for pointing us towards this.