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Martin Stannard

Certain Manoeuvres, Lydia Unsworth (Knives Forks and Spoons, 89pp, £9.00)

Lydia Unsworth’s Certain Manoeuvres is the kind of work that might prompt reviewers to fall back on cliché and describe it as an unsettling read. They might even be tempted to use the word “disturbing” instead of “unsettling”. I’m hedging my bets and using both, as you may have already noticed, although I don’t really think either is particularly apt.

Unsworth translates the familiar into the disconcertingly too familiar by way of some 80 pages of prose poems that share a limited number of titles: On, ’68, Master (Stream), Attachment, and Effects. We are informed that those bearing the title ’68 are extracted from a book called Famous Cities of the World: Amsterdam, and there are a small number of other sources of borrowed texts cited, but otherwise the writing is primarily “original”, or whatever the right word is. But I am not really the kind of reader who is going to examine and analyse the overarching structure that’s at work here: I read for enjoyment and occasional bewilderment. I don’t want it to be “work” – not in the traditional sense of “unpleasant pastime”, anyway.

But something here almost demands analysis, so on my second visit I decided to read the pieces by title, to see if I could pick up the threads, the structure, as it were, but after about ten minutes of that I felt like I was reading in order to do an A-level essay, which is a pretty awful feeling to have, so abandoned the plan. All you can do is read, in whatever way you want, but it’s a book I would defy anybody to read at all quickly or, for that matter, with a smile on their face. As an account of sorts of a life and a loose (very loose) perambulation in a modern city – whether it’s Amsterdam or not seems to be of little import – the underlying sense is one of disconnection and anxiety, a proliferation of the rubbish life is filled with, be it physical or abstract, and a yearning for a place to call home and/or safe. At least, I think that’s it: at 80-odd pages the book asks for quite a lot of your time, especially as one read through isn’t going to do it, and who has the time these days, what with living with this underlying sense of disconnection and anxiety we all seem to have, and the proliferation of the rubbish life is filled with, be it physical or abstract, and a yearning for a place to call home and/or safe. Or, as Unsworth has it,

          I grow every hair on my body so the sun won’t burn through me any more than
          it has already. Running from tree to tree in the park trying to shelter from the rain.
          pathetic that I still don’t know how to be wet yet, that I still can’t dress appropriately.
          I get angry at the weather forecast for misleading me when really it is my fault that
          I can’t read the clouds, can’t tolerate the sun, don’t know what the wind means.

The whole thing strikes me as being pretty lonely –

          It is not enough for me. 700,000 people are not enough. I have had to increase
          the acceptable age range on my dating profile.

but that’s not an especially new take on modern life, to be honest, and after a while I found myself looking for something positive here, something not to be depressed about. I haven’t found it yet, which is not to say it’s not there: writing this interesting throws a light on the darkness, almost in spite of itself and its subject matter. I think this is a good book, albeit a bit of a too long book, but I have to put it aside for now because I’m doing my best these days to be cheerful, perhaps a little against the odds. Conclusion: a recommended read, but in small doses, depending on one’s mood, temperament, and disposition. Handle with care.

Copyright © Martin Stannard, 2019