By Michael Niewodowski
“Early Monday morning, late on Saturday night, I saw ten thousand mile away a house just out of sight!
The floor was on the ceiling, the front was at the back; It stood alone between two more, And the walls were whitewashed black!”
To be honest, I was completely lost while reading Thursbitch. The novel is an enigmatic riddle, and the language is intentionally dense and confusing. The valley of Thursbitch in Northern England seems to be a mystical place in which the characters of the novel also lose themselves.
At least half the novel follows the story of Jack Turner, a jagger (salt vendor) in the late 1700s. He leads a cult-like religious ceremony that involves hallucinations that may or may not be due to his mushrooms (I think). Jack invokes a mystical bull from the heavens that inhabits his body during the ceremony, and the men and women attending the ceremony tear at his body, nearly killing him; Jack recovers by drinking his own urine (I think). Besides the ceremony, Jack does inexplicable things like carrying a carved stone head from a cave in the valley to his home; consider the following passage for a glimpse into the language and mystery- Jack (carrying and speaking to the stone head): “Now then, old Crom. How hast tha been this journey? Did the light hurt thine een? Never fret. It’s done; while next time. We shall burn bonny fires for thee. And Jenkin shall hold stars right running…Eh dear. We must look a pair, you and me. But did you see at all your land and did we mind us ways? I’ll take you down and put you in your bed, as soon as stones have done supping at the brook. We don’t want to be trod on by them great lummoxes. Hush now.” p. 74. Later, Jack becomes a fire-and-brimstone Christian pastor, preaching to the people of the valley of Thursbitch (I think). He dies, frozen to death, next to a single female footprint.
Like I said, I was lost while reading the book.
Sometimes it’s fun to be lost, though. I lived in London, England for a year when I was in my early twenties. I would often get intentionally lost in the city and attempt to find my way home. The streets of London seem like someone had a perfect grid and then took an egg scrambler to it and added a couple cans of alphabet soup. They don’t sell maps of the city; rather they have A-Z (pronounced A to Zed) books with page after page of maps referencing the names of the streets in the index. After a night out or on a slow afternoon, I would take the tube or a bus to a far away part of the city I had never visited and wander my way to familiarity. I guess I felt like I had something to prove.
Meanwhile, in Thursbitch, in modern times, a woman, Sal (short for Sally), finds her only solace in the valley of Thursbitch. She is dying of a degenerative disease that causes her to lose her memories; she is becoming ‘lost’ in time. The valley is the only place her memories seem to ‘stick’. She also seems to have some preternatural connection to Jack from the 1700’s Thursbitch valley (I think).
The valley of Thursbitch plays a large a part in the novel; in fact, it is even more important than the characters.
I understand how important landscapes can be to a story. I once visited Venice, Italy with my family (again, in my twenties). One day, an incredibly thick fog rolled in over the city from the Adriatic Sea. While my family stayed in the hotel wishing for a sunnier day, I went exploring. Most tourists who visit Venice never stray far from the Rialto or the Piazza San Marco; I intentionally got lost in the depths of the narrow meandering pathways. The memory of that walk is vivid: as I could barely see more than a few feet ahead of me for the fog, every few steps brought something new. Ancient buildings on both sides suddenly gave way to modern apartments. I reached many a dead end- either blocked by a building or one of the ubiquitous canals. Lushly carved bridges sprung up abruptly; one led into a grove of olive trees. I passed fishermen in their noisy boats coming and going on the larger canals, and on smaller ones gondolas would slip past silently into the mist. I turned one corner and found myself walking behind a beautiful Italian lady. She glanced behind her then slightly quickened her pace, while I self-consciously slowed my pace so as not to seem like a stalker. She disappeared into the fog long before the sound of her heels clicking against the stone walkway faded away. All the while, the water lapped gently against the stones of the tiny islands, buildings, and passageways.
There are places in this world in which the individual loses his sense of self in the infinite. My experiences in London and Venice reflect this truth. In Thursbitch, the valley is such a place.