‘Oh and she forgot to mention that she suffers anxiety attacks every time she steps on a certain type of wooden parquet.’
It takes confidence to write a line like that at the end of a chapter about suffering and suicide. But Mary Papastavrou’s debut novel How to Sew Pieces of Cloud Together is fearless in both style and content.
The events take place in the claustrophobic surroundings of a Letchworth gaol, (a clever choice of venue: a town built as a test bed for a new kind of social utopia), and the individual psychologies of a group of people brought together by chance, fate and experimentation.
A study of prison inmates by Dr James Hoffman is subjected to an inspection by civil servants Rita Hopper and Malcolm Cherry. What should be a routine visit turns into something much more involving as both Hopper and Cherry are drawn into the psychological complexities of cause and effect, criminal responsibility and a form of potential rehabilitation that goes far beyond normal rehabilitation.
The novel is nothing if not ambitious in its portrayal of the five inmates, each with their own complex motivations. Papastavrou draws on psychoanalysis, semiotics and theatre to create characters that are vivid and yet ambiguous, setting up inevitable comparisons between inmate and inspector.
Without that confidence of voice How to Sew Pieces of Cloud Together could have sunk under the weight of its own concept – that society condemns some individuals before they commit the crimes for which they are punished a second time. The novel is intricate, it relies on unsympathetic characters whose motives are constantly under question, but the reader is ultimately rewarded for their perseverance.
There are few novelists who inspire me to put a book down and start writing, but having read How to Sew Clouds, I found myself itching to get on with something. Distinct author voices do that to you, and distinct voices tend to be the ones that speak with confidence.
Featured image: Letchworth, copyright Robin Hall