Today we’re talking about “Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring” by M. John Harrison, a story which became the foundation of its author’s 1996 novel Signs of Life. To kick off, we have an extensive response from Nina Allan, which I’ll quote only in part here:
You could almost say that ‘Isobel’ is MJH in microcosm [...] It bears many ur-Harrison trademarks: gaunt cityscapes in decline, disenchanted individualists in terminal disconnect mode, intimations of the marvellous. The language of the story manages somehow to be both resolute and dissolute, a gradual persuasion of the drab towards incandescence.
And here are some initial thoughts from me:
When I read this story, I still had the experience of Viriconium very much in mind; if that series moves towards the destruction of fantasy-as-escape, I see “Isobel Avens” as doing something similar. Of course, there’s Isobel’s dream of flying, which cannot be realised; and the fantastical surgery, which is no magic solution. But I also think this is a great portrait of an exhausted relationship: empty conversations; Mick Rose’s constant calls for the reader to “imagine this”, as though his relationship with Isobel happened to someone else. And there are some superb lines: “The years I lived with her I slept so soundly” – I love how equivocal that sentiment is.
So, what did you think?