Clay by Melissa Harrison

11th Jan 2013


Sophia, seventy-eight and alone after the death of her beloved husband, tends the small park next to her block of flats.

As she surreptitiously re-plants the daffodil beds dug by the council into a shape more suited to her liking, she tries to rebuild her relationship with her snobbish daughter through her granddaughter Daisy, the most delightful eight-year-old you’ll ever meet on a page.

Daisy, meanwhile, wants to be allowed to play in the park on her own like her new friend TC, a neglected, lonely boy whose mother’s complete lack of interest in him has left him to become almost feral.

Seeking solace in the natural world, he tracks beasts across the common and the railway lines surrounding his estate, and discovers new jungles in forgotten, bombed-out chunks of the city.

TC forms a strange friendship with Jozef, an economic migrant from Poland whose family farm folded with the arrival of the EU.

Jozef, whose profound love for nature (and his dog) makes him an object of suspicion for the other men in the community, is wary of allowing a friendship with a young boy to grow – particularly given how it might look to the outside world.

While the two souls’ desperate need for someone who understands their love for nature grows, the suspicions of the community – who seemingly only care when things go wrong – mean that TC and Jozef are headed for trouble.

Harrison writes beautifully, and shows flair and originality in her use of nature as a unifying motif in a book concerned with the realities of life in a modern city.Parts of Clay, especially the story of Sophia and Daisy, are sweetly funny. Others are deeply sad: TC’s life makes for hard reading, and Jozef’s experience of the EU as worse than the Iron Curtain for him and for his family challenges  assumptions about immigrants and the reasons behind immigration.

The pace of the narrative can be a little slow in places, and some of the characters are closer to caricature than to fully-fleshed out, realistic people. That aside, Harrison writes beautifully, and shows flair and originality in her use of nature as a unifying motif in a book concerned with the realities of life in a modern city.

Her themes – loneliness within communities, friendships across generational boundaries, and the best way to parent children – are structured around an ever-present awareness of the rhythms of the natural world, and the trees, plants and animals that we who live in cities see every day, but remain somehow ignorant of. I have lived in Leeds for almost ten years and have no idea what trees grow in my local park, or what birds live in my garden hedge: this book made me want to find out.

Covering a year in this unnamed city (and all the better for being so: this could be anywhere), Clay takes us full circle through all four seasons. Urbanites who need a little help to see the beauty in whatever little nature is allocated to them should pick this book up as a January treat.

Clay was published on 3rd January by Bloomsbury, and is available in hardback from Foyles, Amazon or your local independent bookshop, priced at £14.99. A Kindle version is also available, priced at £9.11.

Rating: 3.5/5

Recommended for: City-dwellers and fans of Monica Ali or Zadie Smith.

Other recommended reading: Try The Cure by Rachel Genn, or NW by Zadie Smith.

Jess Haigh