Wreaking by James Scudamore
The Wreaking of the title of James Scudamore's novel is a vast disused mental hospital on the south coast, close to a bleakly fading seaside town. After its closure, Wreaking is bought by Jasper Scriven, an unstable, grieving single father, who brings his troubled teenage daughter Cleo with him to live in the eerie isolation of empty hospital wards and endless echoing corridors. But what happened at Wreaking to estrange them, and what horrific accident resulted in the loss of Cleo's eye? Why, years later, is the adult Cleo being stalked by Roland, a petty criminal who works for a grotesquely seedy, sinister boss, living in a dankly threatening storage unit under a railway arch? And what of Wreaking's former inmates and staff? Mona and Carole both frequented Wreaking in the past, and are now living in a rundown guest house - but which was the nurse and which was the patient?
As you may have guessed, Wreaking is far from a barrel of laughs: it is, in fact, one of the bleakest novels I've read in a long time. Filled with a powerful, pervasive air of decay and degeneration - both physical and mental - it gave me a sense of profound unease. That isn't to say it isn't an exceptional novel - it is. It's a beautifully crafted book that is made all the more unsettling by the quality of Scudamore's prose, a well-proportioned mix of the poetic and the deliberately and depressingly mundane. The use of language, the awkwardly off-kilter characters and the ever-present air of dread that hangs over the entire novel reminded me of Nicola Barker's Darkmans, or Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black, and those aren't comparisons I would make lightly.
Wreaking flits between each character's past and present, piecing together the connections between them. At one time or another, they all inhabited Wreaking - or perhaps it inhabited them. Each of them is an irreparably damaged individual, and Wreaking appears to be a remarkably damaging environment. For all its work to cure the insane when it was a functioning psychiatric hospital, once closed down Wreaking seems to breed madness, the crumbling building and its overgrown grounds feeding off the mental deterioration of everyone who comes into contact with it, from the deluded Jasper and the fearful, lonely Cleo to awkward, shambling Roland and his sadistic troublemaker of a friend, Oliver.
The story of Jasper, Cleo and Roland is gradually untangled through a non-linear plot structure that at times feels like a slowly developing nightmare in which unspeakable terrors are always around the corner, but nonetheless always unseen: everything Scudamore withholds is every bit as significant as what he reveals.
All this said, from an entirely subjective point of view, I would be hard-pushed to say I enjoyed reading Wreaking, and there were times when I almost decided not to finish it. I suspect, however, that this has a lot more to do with my personal state of mind than the novel itself; it deals with a number of topics I find difficult to read about. It's a remarkable book, however, and it's hard to find fault with its incredibly skilled construction.