Must-read of the week – Howul: A Life’s Journey

In unique and memorable style, author David Shannon invites us to enter a primitive and brutal post-Apocalyptic world where books are considered dangerous, but it’s people that are the real threat.

By Timothy Arden

Just as some dog owners are said to resemble their pets, new novel HOWUL bears many striking similarities to its titular protagonist.

Like its memorable antihero, the book is absolutely its own thing — unconventional, quirky, extraordinary.

The story it tells, and the fictional world where it all happens, never lets the reader down or breaks the illusion. It immediately draws you in to its strange setting through incredible prose and then keeps a tight hold as, together with our hapless lead, you progress on an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind experience.

Set in a post-Apocalyptic future, in an unidentified coastal location (though it is strongly suggested to be Wales), HOWUL follows the wonderings and wanderings of its central character as he goes from one scrape to another.

Survival is a victory in itself given that, in his world, civilisation has collapsed, society has regressed to a pre-technological level, and nearly everything seems intent on killing him.

Remarkably, though, Howul has got to the age of 35 despite the best murderous efforts of rats, snakes, diseases, the sea, and the weather. His partner, Jen, was not so lucky, leaving him to raise their daughter, Erin, on his own.

If this all sounds overly grim, it doesn't read that way. Sharp jags of humour lighten the mood and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. Howul's descriptions of the "People Before" — us — are particularly to be treasured.

Like his father before him, Howul is a healer, though his knowledge of medicine is pretty much limited to recommending a vegetable-based broth known as ‘potch’. He has inherited a rare book on medicine, a relic of the “People Before”, but it’s mostly beyond his comprehension, and he has even less insight into the causes of most illnesses.

For instance, his solution for a woman whose knee wobbles when it bends is to advise her to avoid bending it. That some of his patients survive while others don’t is, in his eyes, mostly a case of luck. 

Yet while he may not be knowledgeable, Howul has a natural curiosity about the world and, at the book’s start, we find him being taught to read and write by the village’s eldest resident, Gommel.

He must, however, do this in secret as in this barbaric age books are believed to be bad for you:

“Since he is knee high to a grasshop, everyone tells him books is dangerous. If you read them, they fill your head with dribble. You cannot eat them and when you throw them in the fire, they give bad heat.”

At Gommel's bidding, Howul begins a journal of the everyday occurrences in Blanow, observing how they treat any strangers who arrive seeking refuge (badly); how they treat Howul and his grieving teenager daughter, Erin (badly); and how they treat each other (also badly).

Staying safe in dangerous times is never easy and defying those in charge takes great courage. For most of his life, Howul keeps his head down, says nothing and has to give way.

But when a decision is made that will consign his daughter to years of misery, Howul has no choice but to challenge it. And fail, of course. Forced to flee his former home, he makes his way through the wilderness.

On his travels, he encounters other communities, continues to have his life threatened with alarming frequency, and discovers that, wherever he goes, humans often behave in remarkably similar ways. As with all fine works of fiction, we see changes in his own character, too. He becomes braver, bolder, more sure of himself, more important. Often, it has to be said, with similarly disastrous consequences.

Howul: A Life’s Journey took author David Shannon — who just so happens to be the husband of Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo OBE — 12 years in total to write and release. The result is little short of a masterpiece.

It is best understood as a work of experimental, literary fiction— for a reason I’ll come to shortly— but is also an approachable, unmissable, page-turning adventure story with a strong streak of satirical humour.

Behind the narrative, it sets out what can happen to people when times are tough. Those at the top control through force, deceit, and manipulation; those below go along with herd, sharing the same fear and hatred of those outside their pack in order not to become another victim of that aggression.

It comments onthe distrust of intelligence, truth, and objectivity that has, alas, embedded itself in present-day society and politics around the globe.

As Howul’s tutor, Gommel, says: “Books in not dangerous, Howul. People is dangerous.”

But while the story explores uncomfortable lives and existence, it is done in a way that will certainly raise laughs. Howul’s first written exercise, an expletive-laden response to the saccharine textbook ‘Jack and Julie Learn to Read’, is a hilarious highlight for me.

What is perhaps the most breath-taking achievement, and the reason for describing the novel as experimental, is the language. Shannon has done nothing less than create a whole new English patois for the people of Howul’s time which, like its people, is simpler and blunter than our tongue. As our unseen narrator expresses it, “Simple time keep people simple.”

It takes a few pages to get a firm grasp on the lingo, in which the entire novel is written, but it’s not challenging and adds so much to the story. In this land everything is new and even the ordinary is described in a way that is delightfully fresh.

For instance, children are ‘snotnoses’, butterflies are ‘flutterbys’, and ‘keriss’ is beautiful, while familiar stories are equally transformed. The sea is inhabited by frightful ‘monisters’ such as ‘Mobby Dick’ and the people of Blanow enjoy hearing the story of ‘Romaro and Jewel’ or ‘Macdeth’ around the fire.

In different ways, HOWUL reminds me of other strikingly original works such as Gulliver’s Travels, Fahrenheit 451, Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange, Riddley Walker, and Mad Max.

But it is in no other work’s shadow and shines out with its own spectacular literary merits. This will go down as a cult classic, for sure, and those who have read it will proudly declare so while enthusiastically recommending that others follow suit.

As such, allow me to be the first to provide this recommendation. Simply unmissable.

HOWUL: A Life’s Journey by David Shannon (Elsewhen Press), is available now through Waterstonespriced £10 in paperback and £2.99 as an eBook.

INTERVIEW WITH DAVID SHANNON

Actor, impresario, and author David Shannon answers our questions about his new novel, HOWUL, about his work running a thriving murder mystery events company, and about what readers can expect next from him.

 

Q. Who would you say are your main literary inspirations, and why?

A. I'm married to Booker Prize-winner Bernardine Evaristo, so you can probably guess one of my answers. In case you think I'm biased, here are some others:

* Richmal Crompton: I was hooked on the Just William stories as a boy. Totally identified with William Brown, wanted to be him, and wished his adventures were mine. And Crompton’s writing is so funny.

* Ernest Hemingway: heroic failure via lean, mean prose.

* Charles Dickens: observational comedy tied to coruscating political analysis.

* George Eliot: the extraordinary drama of ordinary lives.

* Russell Hoban: expect the unexpected.

The most perfect book I've ever read that isn't by someone called Evaristo is Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day. A study of how doing what we feel we must can stop us from doing what we should. A big influence on my book, I now realise.

Q. Why did you decide to set your book in an unspecified future time?

A. I thought it would make things easier for me and give me more freedom. Because I'd be making stuff up, I could say whatever I wanted to and didn't need to worry about getting everything ‘right’. In fact, even in a made-up, future world, you still have to work very hard to make everything consistent and believable. 

Q. Your book can be viewed as a satire. What key elements of present-day society did you wish to satirise, and what are you criticising about them?

A. How our political leaders behave and why we let them. In HOWUL, they lie, cheat, misappropriate, mess up, blame, and persecute. And the ‘people’ shrug their shoulders and let them get away with it. Remind you of anywhere?

Q. What one piece of advice has your Booker Prize-winning wife, Bernardine Evaristo, given you on writing that you have taken to heart?

A. It can't just be a hobby. To make anything happen, you have to really, really, really work at it.

Q. In addition to being an author, you are also an actor and murder mystery creator and impresario. How has your acting career fed into your writing?

A. It has helped a lot with creating characters and deciding what they should say. Playing a role in a film or theatre is very different from watching or reading something. It opens your eyes to what works, what doesn't, and why.

Q. Your book has taken more than a decade to bring to publication. Why did you feel it important to give it so much time, and how did you manage to stay on track with the project over the intervening years?

A. Back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, I was a journalist. If I had a deadline for writing something, I'd apply myself to it and get it done. That was my job; that was what I was paid to do. With my novel, it was different. Never any deadline and, even though I kept going back to it, other things got in the way — not least, the need to earn a living. Then a few well-paid things came along that gave me some breathing space and I used this to finish the novel. Otherwise, I might still be working on it.

David Shannon is married to Booker Prize-winning author Bernardine Evaristo OBE.

Q. What do you think are the essential elements that are required to make it as an author?

A. Being stubborn. Believing in yourself. Taking advice. Getting back up every time you are knocked down. Having something to say.

Q. You create and run murder mysteries. How would you describe this world, and what is it like to be part of?

A. It's something I've been doing for 25 years and (most of the time!) I still love it. Everything changed when the pandemic struck. For it, I created some new mysteries which can be bought and played online, with or without us as hosts. They offer a light-hearted way for people to immerse themselves in something that's different, new and, above all, fun. Guests play characters, become suspects in a murder, and then decide at the end who they want to accuse. The feedback we've had about them has been phenomenal. You can find out more at www.murdermysterygames.co.uk  

Q. If there was a film version of HOWUL, which character would you like to play and why? Howul, of course. As the lead role, he'd have more to do and say than anyone else. Actors egotistical? Never!

Q. What’s next for you as an author?

A. I have a sequel in mind for HOWUL, focussing on what happens to two of the other characters in it. And I've nearly finished the first draft of a crime novel featuring an old lady detective. Another one? Yes, there are a few out there already. But, as far as I know, mine is the first based entirely on my own mother!

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