Northwords Now Issue 40

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Incunabulum -Carol McKay - The PotHole Press (2020)

“Supp’d full with horrors”

A Review by Valerie Beattie

Reading fiction about a pandemic whilst living in the midst of one may seem strange, like deliberately reliving a nightmare whilst the light of morning - nature’s signifier of newness, possibility and growth - shines through the window. Yet the inherent prescient quality of a pandemic novel set just before Covid-19 can trigger an interest, capturing readers with the potential for initiating deeper understandings and insights into current personal, social and political crises with its imaginative construction.

Published almost at the end of March 2020, Carol McKay’s Incunabulum seems to reflect current tentative steps and fragile hopes, but its pandemic is catastrophic, wiping out the vast majority of Britain’s population. With minimum effort the aggressive sweep of infection creates “body piles: a spaghetti bolognese of limbs, heads and clothing”, leading the narrator to admit to “roll[ing] up the windows and turn[ing] the other way”. These abject sights in turn stimulate images of the Thames in London “running pus from all the bodies”, even though none of the characters are likely to venture that far: the dread evoked by profound human, animal and landscape decay close by is effectively established early on, and serves to stifle any such thoughts.

The novel’s descriptive energy successfully draws readers into a particular feature of crises - their ability to trigger “stun” moments. Our main eyes on the destruction are Alice’s, a sixty-something local history librarian who, having lost consciousness for an undisclosed period of time, awakens in Glasgow to a sense that she’s “slept for a million years”. Through Alice we experience the emotional disquiet elicited by the transformation of the familiar and good into that-which-no-longer-is. While this is a short mental process, the novel highlights how residual elements - the essence of the object or person - linger in the deadened state as tangible reminders of what has been lost. Thus it is that, in the blink of an eye, crises activate feelings and sensations of horror in accordance with the mind’s growing awareness of the alien scenes now overtaking the norm. And, with little time for establishing new maps, our sense of being can become suspended - or irrevocably, fundamentally, altered.

Upon realising she’s one of very few survivors, Alice’s instinct is to search for people she knows. When she discovers most of them are dead, she finds herself in the company of those she would normally avoid. And this is where the democratising momentum of Incunabulum resides as, with the city’s capitalist institutions and modes of production inoperable, all goods are free, and normal status signifiers have no practical function. Symbolic of this transition is when Alice gazes at a twenty-pound note and some coins in her purse as one would museum artefacts from the Egyptian empire. But, despite the theoretical freedom afforded by the collapse of capitalism, hierarchies of social status are slow to weaken, and established paradigms of gender, family and sexuality often impact as seriously upon personal survival and growth as the pandemic itself.

Incunabulum’s surgical illustration of the tenacity of capitalist ideologies is revealed through the detailed, crises-ridden interactions of Alice’s group: these are shown to be as much a function of dogged habits, prejudices and behaviours as they are frantic, spontaneous reactions to sudden and significant change. The echoes of classist, sexist and racist paradigms that claim the empty space excavated by the pandemic are sometimes as tragic and profound as the impact of the disaster: it’s as if (to borrow from Erasmus) in the land of the new, old habits and memories are king. But this is the way the novel highlights both the security of habits and their need to be changed. Alice articulates this when, taking her glasses off during a conversation about the tragedy of her lost baby, she says, “My life always looked better out of focus”. This analogy reverberates throughout the novel, pointing to the need for a new focus, new ways of seeing. But Incunabulum is clear that only we can do this re-visioning; only we can look anew to the common humanity in all.

Incunabulum is also a form of book within a book. Early on, Alice takes a precious 16th-century incunabulum from her old library, one that chronicles a terrible tempest. In the final chapter, just before she puts the book in a safe, she explains to Basher, the Arabic-speaking asylum seeker, that it tells how “They overcome all the ordeals. […] They overcome all the obstacles and go on all the stronger”. It is good to conclude with the capacity of the human race to come together with dignity and compassion in the context of radical change.