Mountains of the Moon
After a ten-year stint in a London prison, Louise Alder has a new name, a cold room, and a past full of secrets. Her story takes us back to a shattered childhood world, a runaway’s odyssey of love and madness, and ultimately to a legendary mountain range in central Africa. In Mountains of the Moon, I. J. Kay has crafted a haunting, hallucinatory, and suspenseful tale of the ultimate triumph of language and imagination, of witnessing and forgiveness. This richly imagined debut novel has garnered comparisons to the swift pacing of mystery master Stieg Larsson and the dazzling literary styles of Cormac McCarthy and William Faulkner.
Releasing me, the judge, slumped under the weight of his own wisdom, suggests I go to a bail hostel in Reading where I can stay temporarily.
"Please, milord," I want to say, "anywhere but Reading." But I don't say anything and a travel warrant is issued. I walk from the court to the railway station. The day is bright and bitterly cold—I don't have my coat. I go into the cafe on the platform to wait. The man behind the counter is happy in his work. When it goes quiet he comes over.
"Can I get you anything?" he says. "You've been here a while."
"I'm waiting for the train to Reading."
"You've missed a few, there's nothing now for an hour."
"Dragging my heels," I say.
"Can I get you something?"
"To be honest," I say, "I've just got out of prison."
"I've got a pound note but I gather they went out of circulation." I show him. "I've got a one-way ticket to Reading."
I've got a plastic bag with Irene's letters in it and a closed-up piercing in my left ear. The man goes away to the counter, comes back with a mug of coffee, ham rolls and chocolate bars.
"I know how it is," he says.
"Thanks ever so much," I say.
He pulls out a chair and sits down.
"Where are you from?" he says. "You sound a bit London, south, Home Counties."
I shrug; I've no idea where the Home Counties are. I probably sound a bit Holloway Prison, a little bit Ladbroke Grove, a little bit Suffolk, Yorkshire Moor, West Midlands, Dorset, Sussex, Kent. A little bit of everywhere and nowhere you can name. He puts a pinch of tobacco on the table in front of me.
"I'm Bernie," he says. "What did they get you for, then?"
Through the plate glass I see people in winter coats and scarves and hats, collecting on the station platform.
"Colourful, int it?" I say.
At the bail hostel in Reading there's a single room for me, but the other thirty inmates are half my age, waiting to go to prison, and I'm just coming out. They don't know what to make of me, there's something not right about me being there. I'm an undercover policewoman, that's what they deduce. I walk in and silence the communal room. One warm spring day I find Heath in the lobby, visiting a bailed mate. It has been eleven years. His red and green leather jacket has faded to pink and grey with age, but the number 9 on the back is still bold and black. He hasn't aged a day, still has a beautiful face in profile, like a medieval saint.
"Hello, Heath," I say.
We always saw eye to eye. The four scars drawn on my cheekbone make me unforgettable. He smiles. Laughs out loud.
"You look good, Kim," he says. "Fuck, do you look good."
He means my prison-gym physique.
"Punchbags and medicine balls," I say.
"Still hacking your hair with a knife." He laughs, invites me to spar in the open space of the lobby.
But I don't. He puts his arm around my neck, hard-sells me bygones and a lot of water under bridges.
I get a job in the bowels of a warehouse, mixing mountains of potpourri with a shovel. Every day I choke on a different fragrant chemical. My wellington boots fill to the rim with ingredients from around the world. The boss is pleased about having someone he can trust. I do deliveries to London in the van, serve customers in the warehouse and go to the bank with the cash. I work fourteen hours a day for the same money I'd get on the dole, and he makes sure he gets his money's worth.
"What do you want from me, blood?" I say.
The boss laughs; he thinks I'm joking but I'm not. I lie about where I live and where I've been. When the wage packet comes I send a fiver to Bernie in the station cafe with a note saying thanks. I pay rent for the room in the hostel and the use of the kitchen. It isn't great but it's somewhere to try and sleep. There's reporting in and out; a night curfew of ten o'clock; there's someone who shits in the showers and someone who's got a gun because the police come wearing bulletproof vests and break down my bedroom door by mistake. A member of staff gives me a list of organisations that help with resettlement and housing. I phone them up. They can help me if I've got children; if I'm fleeing from domestic violence; if I'm a refugee or from a minority group; they can help me if I've got issues with alcohol or drug abuse. I don't fit the criteria. I never have. The last one on the list baulks when I mention prison.
"Our organisation only helps and supports young women who have problems with their mental health."
"OK, sorry to bother you," I say and hang up.
Upstairs my room has been broken into and trashed. The wages I've been saving have gone from my hiding place. I phone the mental health people back. It's a different woman that answers my call. I lie about my age. She asks me if I have suicidal thoughts; I say yes, about four times a week. They give me somewhere to live, a room in a halfway house. It's in Bristol, a city I like, the city where my love lives.
I hitch to Bristol down the M4. The house is comfortable, clean and safe. Except that, on account of the other women in the house (who have problems with their mental health) it's only halfway all right. One mad old woman knocks on my door constantly, threatens to kill herself if I don't come out. I don't come out. Another girl phones the police all night, every night, to complain about raging parties next door but the elderly couple living there go to bed at eight o'clock, there isn't a sound. I am the love object of another, she gropes my breasts and between my legs at every passing chance. I ask her nicely to stop but she doesn't. I have to get assertive and shove her off but then she does it more, for sport, to wind me up. I could kill her but I don't. One day I find Heath in the kitchen and all of the halfway women laughing.
"How did you know I was here?" I ask him.
"The bail hostel told me," he says. "I had a look in their filing cabinet. I had a Bristol drop so I thought I'd come and say howdy-do, as you do."
Heath lives in Manchester now with a woman called Sharon and her kids. He can't wait for me to meet her. I don't ask about Gwen, he doesn't ask about Pete. We go in the street to look at his Scania parked up the road. The Rolls-Royce of lorries.
"I'm driving it myself," he says. "But this time next year I've got two on the road and the following year I've got four. And where am I?"
"At the dojo?"
"Fishing," he says.
Every hair on my neck stands up. I look at Heath; remember the story of the crossbow and the gun, the two killer boys in the woods. Witch's house makes me shiver. Bygones.
I have to serve extra time in that house, eighteen months, reducing my suicidal thoughts to once a week, then once a month, until finally the organisation decides that I'm able to take care of myself and they fix it with the housing association for me to have this flat.
I sound ungrateful, I'm not; a housing association flat is, after all, a guaranteed home for life.
“Merciless and penetrating . . . a difficult and disturbing novel, a wormy nightmare pitched between hard covers. If there are Stieg Larsson-like moments, they emerge from a prose style that owes more to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. Ms. Kay’s utterances here are colloquial, bumpy, bordering on stream-of-consciousness. They often seem to be scratched onto a can with a rusty nail. . . . An unsentimental yet intensely moving portrait.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“Like William Faulkner’s famously demanding novels . . . multiple readings would be needed to pick up on everything Ms. Kay is doing, but even on my first time through, Mountains of the Moon was one of the most challenging and impressive novels I’ve read all year.”—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“Like William Faulkner’s famously demanding novels . . . multiple readings would be needed to pick up on everything Ms. Kay is doing, but even on my first time through, Mountains of the Moon was one of the most challenging and impressive novels I’ve read all year.”
—Sam Sacks, The Wall Street Journal
“There are novels that take hold instantly, of your mind and of your heart, and fictional characters that remain with you not as a memory but as a presence. Mountains of the Moon is one of those novels, and Louise Alder is one of those characters. . . . Kay’s sentences, plain yet eccentric, have a seductive, sprightly rhythm, and her descriptions are both lyrical and tactile. . . . The novel’s suspense, masterfully calibrated, is intensified by Louise’s fantasy and by the teasing glimpses we get of the crime at the novel’s core.”
“Like Stieg Larsson’s audacious heroine, Lisbeth Salander, Kay’s Louise Alder possesses an uncanny resourcefulness and spot-on survival instincts. . . . This is a remarkable novel on many levels, not only for its charismatic lead but also for debut novelist Kay’s complex plot, which repeatedly cuts back and forth in time, and multifaceted prose, which ranges from the fractured syntax of Louise’s childhood to the cinematic language of her African sojourn. A searing, soulful affirmation of the human spirit.”
“A compulsively readable novel . . . It’s the inimitable voice that Kay has worked out that makes Louise’s journey unforgettable, checkered with personal touches and a timbre of defiantly playful happiness that belies the deep sadness of her circumstances and the hard-boiled content of her flight from disaster to freedom. The novel’s impressive air of feminist noir and hard-knock psychological realism are merely molehills that the unusual (and personal) prose promotes to the scale of mountains.”
“A striking debut. Imagination can blossom in the grimmest environment is one lesson of Kay’s appealing, often painful first novel, which captures the creative language and irrepressible spirit of Lulu King. . . . A wild, sometimes disorienting but impressively crafted novel.”
“An extraordinary debut . . . This is a novel about one woman’s struggle for existence, both physical and psychological, and in spite of the desperate subject matter it is above all a triumphant, uplifting expression of an individual’s capacity to transcend the brutality and ugliness of everyday life and create something unique and magnificent. . . . There’s a sense of having experienced something genuinely unforgettable. . . . A bold, unsettling, uplifting novel. Read it. Then read it again.”
“An extraordinary and quite brilliant first novel . . . The writing is wonderfully inventive, encompassing grim reality and wild, romantic fantasy, and the true magic lies in the way the author manages to present the fragments as a funny, charming, beautiful whole.”—The Times (London)
“I. J. Kay’s remarkable story waits like a lion in the savannah, sharp-toothed and patient. . . . The reward is Kay’s fiercely distinctive voice, and descriptions of lyrical intensity. . . . Kay’s character feels everything across many registers, rendering her experience as a vivid polyphony, much of it painful, much beautiful. Even the descriptions of physical violence have a dark poetry in them that brings to mind an elemental writer such as Cormac McCarthy. For above all, in this novel as in McCarthy’s work, it is language that redeems.”
“An astonishingly enjoyable debut novel . . . The trust that our resourceful heroine will always survive is what allows us to take pleasure in her ingenious ways of doing so; the same pleasure, of watching a female victim turn the tables on her persecutors, which has made the Stieg Larsson trilogy so popular. There are thriller elements that add suspense to this very literary fiction. . . . Mountains of the Moon does everything that novels can do, and does them in a very original way.”
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