REVIEW (May 2019)


‘a palimpsest of fragments & scraps, halting tales & tortured myths…’

House of the Flight-helpers by Philomena van Rijswijk


ALONG the eastern seaboard of an unnamed continent the authorities have built a wall. The city sprawls along the coast beaten by the mush-brown sea, protected from outsiders or invaders and, most important of all, from anything which flies. The city is shrouded with high nets, constantly repaired by men who no longer fish. The nets are covered in guano and corpses, the city below made murky by the myriad dead birds.

The citizens, the occupants of the city, have few rights and less knowledge. They are terrified of any creature with feathers. Bird is a banned word and the sound of gulls brings horror. At night the untouchable caste of Cheerful Federators cleans every comb and barbule from the streets. They sweep up anyone out past curfew: abandoned children, dying elders, the rebel too absorbed in his graffiti to notice the dark. Such sinners are dispatched to the orphanage, the Mental Wing or the subterranean Godown Prison. They disappear and few, if any, ever return.

Beyond the city wall stretches the terrible Inland, a massive desert of heat and sand, though at its very centre is rumoured to be a place of sweetness and calm. Predators and vermin roam out there, to be avoided at all costs.

Of course, all walls look different from the other side. The long construction bars the way to the sea for the roaming Camel Wallahs, Blue Wallcreepers, Wallachs and other mysterious continental denizens. For them, the loss of the cities has brought economic collapse to match environmental destruction. Nomads wander a barren, hostile landscape collecting goods for the teeming markets and shanty towns lined against the outside, the downside, the unknown side of the wall.

Some find or stumble upon ways to penetrate the wall and face the dangers of the outside. (No-one is coming the other way, into the lucky privileges of the chosen few.) A message is carried: it is cold…we have no blankets. All routes are circuitous, perplexing, accompanied by fable and myth. Bird-tracks in the dust are as legible, as meaningful, as human words. Eventually, inevitably, the wall is breached. The tyrant falls and a young, wise, enigmatic man tears up that mantle to begin again, to make something different.

 A life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details[1]

Don’t let my description suggest that this is a linear novel. It is a series of fragments, pieces of news from nowhere. The city finds echoes in the streets of Hav of the Myrmidons; Inland is the antonym of Le Guin’s Valley. Stories come and go, meander through the dried wadis, in and out of sad villages and past infants left to starve until adopted by birds. A child plays in a gutter till she is swept away, reunited with her lost sister fifty tales later after circumnavigations and drowning.

[1] Ursula Le Guin The Birthday of the World and Other Stories

(Cont. next column)

House of the Flight-helpers is a palimpsest of fragments and scraps, halting tales and tortured myths. Half-remembered stories, which you, the reader, rework so that when this character or that symbol re-emerges you are no longer sure of its history or freight. The form mirrors a fractured place, a land of erasure and retelling, broken by its mysterious past.

Reading the book, itself a delightful object, is like following the news of a distant war, hard and unrelenting. In many ways, it is indeed the telling of the aftermath of conflict, what is left when the men ride away to die under black flags, when the fish no longer come and the ravaged soil provides no crops.  It is a long time before we find any possibility of salvation.

Van Rijswijk manages the complexity of dystopia beautifully. Each page bristles with unlikely details, strange insights into the horror within and outside the city colliding with beauty, with trust and the possibility of connection. Sentences carry great weight, repaying close reading to quarry out the references and possibilities they contain.

On recovering their ability to use the word blue, the people of the valley of broken dreams became ‘free to remark on the ethereal hue of an infant’s eyes, and the three most tenuous emotions – joy, nostalgia and sadness – ran free and unfettered in the veins and arteries of the restored men and women of that blessed place.’

La esperanza es lo último que se pierde[1]

In the end, the ducks return. The lake of stillness at the heart of things is in the city itself. ‘Mankind’s endless and insatiable need for some glimmer of hope[2]feeds the possibility of change. The horrifying reality van Rijswijk imposes upon us is the uncertainty of permanence. We are left unsure: if solutions are only ever temporary, maybe hope is condemned to be illusory,

We, the readers, inevitably know that here in our present world, walls are being rebuilt and continents re-partitioned. Resource wars driven by climate change are underway. These present problems are already daunting. The House of the Flight Helpers shows that after the apocalypse we will continue to hope. The author suggests that there is a horror in optimism; in the face of knowledge, hope itself is torture. Even so, the terror remains that hope will die and not return.

[1] Spanish proverb, translated as hope dies last.

[2] P 281, first edition

House of the Flight-helpers by Philomena van Rijswijk has been published by independent UK publisher Tartarus Press as a sewn hardback in a limited edition of 300 copies; 310 pages, ISBN 978-1-912586-09-7, price £35 inc. p&p worldwide. 

Reviewer Sarah Tanburn is a writer and sailor, anchored in South Wales. Her writing has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Snapshots of History, A River of Stones and various ‘zines. She is writing a novel about revolutions and the sea, and working towards a doctorate in creative writing from the University of Swansea. She has been shortlisted for the 2019 Rheidol Prize.

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