Book Review

The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments by Ann Quin

Find out what Scott Manley Hadley has been reading and doing

Whey! Everyone’s favourite literary lifestyle blog (citation needed) is back, baybe!

Today’s post is me checking out a hot new forthcoming book from And Other Stories. I feel incredibly privileged to have received an advance copy of this, as Ann Quin is a writer whose life and work I am incredibly interested by (see recent video).

The topics Quin’s writing touches on tick all of Old Poppa Manley Hadley’s favourite themes (i.e. sexuality, literature itself and mental illness innit). The Unmapped Country: Stories & Fragments contains 14 texts, some of which are stories published within Quin’s lifetime (1936 – 1973), others have come from various private collections. The star of the book, for me, is the eponymous piece, ‘The Unmapped Country’, which wow wow wowed me from start to end.

‘The Unmapped Country’ (as it appears here) was the draft of the in-progress novel manuscript Quin was working on before she drowned herself in Brighton on August bank holiday 1973. At 50 pages, it is by far the longest piece in the book, and in its evocation of psychocis and paranoia I found it to be so alarmingly haunting that I almost had to stop what I was doing and try and find some beta blockers from my bag, however I’ve only had like 2 hours sleep and worked 15 hours yesterday, so things are-

I’m typing this on an aeroplane, flying south to fucking Lanzerote. I’ve had a pretty stressful Summer and Autumn, and I booked myself a cheap, short, break at the start of October, projecting that by the end of November everything in my life would be sorted and everything in my life would be good. Well, what has ended up happening is that the boat I bought to live on has been discovered to be structurally unsound, despite the expensive survey I paid for telling me the contrary. So, I’ve ended up without any long term housing plans, while paying for what is now essentially a leaky metal shack I cannot move out of fucking Daventry. I bought a boat to live on, what I have ended up with is a shed that WILL sink if I try to move it. So I’m now involved in trying to recoup my loss from the surveyor, which is obviously not proving easy. And then on top of that: my grandfather died and I had to write and deliver a speech at his funeral, I’ve continued working a huge amount, I’m trying to declutter my parents’ cluttered house, AND trying to make positive progress with my mental health. Actually, I’m doing OK, I’m doing much better, that last one is working. I’ve had writing published recently in a few places and more is on its way. I’ve also been having a rewarding social life for the first time in years and I’ve been enjoying the treasure that is my dog, cute little Cubby. Awwww so adorable.
None of the above paragraph is about the book, I geddit, but the last book review I wrote was for Open Pen and I behaved like a grown up book reviewer and cut all the self-involved digressions so it functions as an ACTUAL book review rather than a weird literary column/confession/rant. (Review was of Nasty Women from 404 Ink, feminist essay collection, it’s great.) So, as much as I have many things going on, many good, but one huge and bad, I am going on holiday. Over the last few weeks – following a heady week of prescription valium which is AMAZING btw – I’ve done some difficult things that I’d been putting off, necessary tasks that I had feared could send me spiralling downwards again. They haven’t, though, and it appears to me that there’s nothing like one massive problem and a family death to really put minor stresses into perspective. The crucial thing about these problems is that neither are my fault, especially the boat, the long term issue. It is bad luck on my behalf, not the result of me doing anything wrong or stupid (unless you’re of the opinion – as many are – that choosing to deal with your own shit as a route to bypass the London rental market is stupid), so I cannot hate myself for this. It is annoying and it is stressful, and until it is resolved I’ll probably have to work more and play less, but that’s life. It’s just a money problem. It’s a large one, but that’s all it is, and unless I get sick or injured in the short term, it’ll sort itself out eventually, for better or worse, so, meh. It’s not a soul problem, it’s a cash one. It’s nice, actually, for the biggest problem in my life to be an external one. Lolololololol.
ANYWAY, for once I’m actually writing about a book people might want to read about, so perhaps the enlarged audience is on my mind and causing the EVEN LONGER THAN USUAL introductory confessional. I’m good, tho, if anyone cares, moving in the right direction. Optimistic, hopeful. This evening I’m recording an interview to be on someone else’s podcast. Lol. And check out the second interviewee in this recent feature at Broadly re extravagant outfits. Nice.
Quin was a contemporary of BS Johnson, and I think the real thing she has over BSJ (other than the intelligent literary evocation of a sexually liberated Englishwoman) is her self editing. Of her novels, none are bad (the same cannot be said for Johnson), and her posthumous novel in progress, which I read here for the first time, is a marvel (Johnson’s is dire). Some of the stories in here I had read before – most memorably the softly tragic ‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’, which I read in Music & Literature No. 7 last year – but the pieces that were new to me, or stories that would evolve into novels or the *themes* of novels – were highly enjoyable and consistently strong. Then again, this could be Jennifer Hodgson rather than Quin’s careful editing, of this volume at least.
There are multiple stories that focus on non-monogamous sexual relationships, most notably ‘Never Trust A Man Who Bathes With His Fingernails’, about the members of a middle class menage a trois guffawing at the awkwardness of the Native American labourer they get to take them to a local hot spring instead of working in their garden all day.
Sex is approached throughout these stories as something necessary, something simultaneously unignorable and forgettable, transitory. Quin’s descriptions of sex are rarely unambiguous, and the frankness that is displayed often verges on the erotic though – and this is obviously the test – I’m pretty certain this book didn’t give me an erection while reading. For the characters in these stories, sex is a need and a hunger, a source of pleasure and companionship, of release and reward, but also something that threatens alienation and awkwardness. But also something fun, a glistening, intense, way to spend an afternoon. Like sex in real life, I suppose: sex is not (as is common in lots of writing about sex from this period and – crucial Scott Manley Hadley brand work here – IN MY OWN WRITING) explicitly UNEROTIC. Sex is discussed and consumed and used by the people in this book in a way that reflects the diverse sexualities that have been increasingly openly discussed since the 1960s. And a thing to bear in mind, maybe, is how “out there” three way relationships would have been to the readers of the ladidah literary journals where Quin was publishing these stories. Then again, maybe they wouldn’t have been shocked, it’s difficult to judge. I DON’T KNOW.
Quin’s work excels when it focuses on the mind and the body and the interactions between the two, and the final section of her unfinished novel is a dark and harrowing account of paranoia that left me overwhelmed and impressed. Quin’s writing has lost nothing to time, and there are very few things (other than a frankly ADORABLE habit of keeping the archaic apostrophe at the start of “‘phone” AND a mention of a lobotomy) that date this work, and with a focus on female sexual experience, on mental health issues, depression and anxiety, her work is deeply resonant to a modern reader who is engaging with identity issues in the now. Quin’s work is electrifying and important, tragic, poetic, moving and sexy. It is writing for the modern age, she has too long been overlooked and I highly recommend you go preorder yourself a fucking copy from the And Other Stories website.
And don’t worry about me, I’m good. Medicated to fuck, but the medicine is doing what it’s meant to do and things are on the up!

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