Where Others Fear to Tread, Guest is a Novel with a Social Conscience

Lisa Jones is the pseudonym of a real woman who, in 2003, fell in love with a man called Mark Kennedy. An environmental activist, Lisa was with Kennedy for seven years until, in 2010, suspicions grew that Kennedy wasn't who he said he was. Lisa and her friends investigated - and found that Kennedy was an undercover police officer who had infiltrated their group in order to gain information on the plans and objectives of the activists.

The life that Lisa had built for seven years was a lie - going public with her story led to a public apology from the police force, and a public investigation into undercover police officers. What wasn't explored though - save for the odd newspaper interview -  was the impact that this had on Lisa Jones. As someone who was regularly protesting, and often saw the police in a negative light - the after-effects on not only Lisa but her group of friends and family, must have been staggering.

It is this idea that sparks the action in Guest - a new novel by author SJ Bradley.

Samhain is a squatter, living with a friend in an abandoned hotel. Angry and disillusioned, his world is shaken by two discoveries: first, that his father was an undercover policeman who infiltrated the Green movement in the 80s; and second, that he too is now a father.

It is a journey told in clear, well-chosen prose suiting the world Bradley has created well

It’s a brilliant concept - Samhain is a lost and vulnerable character at the start of the book, and the discovery that he was, essentially, conceived under a lie leads him onto a fascinating journey - one in which he’s forced to choose between repeating the sins of his father and abandoning his family, or becoming a different man altogether.

It is a journey told in clear, well-chosen prose suiting the world Bradley has created well; the characters are both naturalistic and recognisable, and whilst Samhain’s actions aren’t always particularly sympathetic, they are never anything less than understandable. His personality is reflected well by the life that he has built around him - the transient, anti-establishment attitudes of his life as a squatter providing a cleverly drawn mirror for the torment that exists in his psyche. It also gives Bradley ample opportunity to set her scene.

While the prose is sparse at points, she brings an efficient sense of place to proceedings: a mention of cobwebs and the shadow of trees from outside of the window, brings Samhain’s bedroom to instant, visual life. A further journey through Europe is painted with precise, minimalist brushstrokes but mention of a few well-chosen words easily paints a picture of a new city, squat or bar with surprising efficiency.

Bradley doesn’t stop at visuals either. The life of her characters is given three dimensions through the smells and textures that the reader can glean from the prose, meaning that none of these characters ever slip into stereotype, being realised in the mind’s eye from their first appearance and making their actions and conversations that much more affecting.

Bradley is clever enough never to go too far 

When Samhain embarks on his journey, he has little idea of his ultimate destination - and neither does the reader. His journey is uncomfortable and painful, but also illuminating and transformative, and it’s a pleasure for the reader to accompany him, watching him grow and change as a person over the course of the chapters. Again though, Bradley is clever enough never to go too far with this concept, and while Samhain receives a new outlook over the course of his travels, the growth feels both natural and earned, making it a wholly rewarding experience for the reader, and leading to a conclusion that’s uplifting without becoming saccharine.

Bradley is based in Leeds and is the founder of “Fictions of Every Kind”, a non-profit writers’ social and short story event. She’s previously published a novel entitled Brick Mother, edited the Saboteur Award-winning anthology Remembering Oluwale, and as an arts organiser, her work involves The Northern Short Story Festival and the Walter Swan Short Story Prize.

Her CV ties very closely into her work in Guest - a book with a social conscience, not afraid to examine the people who are often covered by the general media in an unfavourable light.

Emotion, humanity and family are strong themes and are all too often abused by authors in order to manipulate their readers. This isn't an issue with Bradley's work at all: the concepts are handled with deft skill, and while Samhain is inherently likeable, the reader is left free to make what they will of his life and choices, making for an interesting and immersive reading experience. Guest is a wholly impressive read by an author who I’ll be keen to see more from in the future.

Luke Marlowe

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