Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London by Gareth E. Rees

Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London by Gareth E. ReesThis book blends almost detached journalism, personal memoir, political commentary, post-apocalyptic horror, graphic novels, and other sources to produce a perspective on the marshes of East London that is both fantastical and believable.

Rees takes as his starting point a series of walks across the marshes of Hackney, Leyton, and Walthamstow with his cocker spaniel. Beginning with minor riffs into local history and events, then moving into what might be magical realism, he starts to reveal layers of mystery and excitement just beneath these ordinary parts of London. Moving further into fantasy, he oscillates between tales of every day life and apparent pure imagination. Then undercuts the reader’s perceptions by revealing that some of the fantastical elements were drawn from news reports.

Interspersed throughout the work are line drawings by Ada Jusic. Using the prose as an initial inspiration, these blur the line between illustration and interpretation, providing at turns a greater insight into events described and an alternative interpretation of them to Rees’ commentary.

This intertwining of prose and picture is used to the full in The Raving Dead, which functions equally well as a stand-alone graphic novel and as one chapter of the greater whole.

The shifting between ostensibly real and surely invented, with new chapters subverting or supporting others, conveys better than a dry listing of fact and experience how the marshes (and by extension anywhere) are a product of human interaction and perception: a piece of ground has financial or emotional value depending on what the viewer believes it to be; or lacks value to a viewer who only accepts objective existence as the measure of qualities.

This revelation of value allows Rees to tie together different stories and themes without losing the feeling of a coherent whole: detailed political analysis of building the Olympics sits next to time-travel yarns, united by the idea that what we think we see is the equal of what is there.

Rees has a definite talent for sketching character with a few quick words, making even the supporting cast immediately seem both deep and interesting. The recurring characters unfold from these short sketches into complex beings, often exposing unexpected qualities like the marshes they inhabit.

Rees is also not afraid to turn this whimsical knife on himself, skilfully casting himself as a narrator who is both unreliable and informative. This talent for – almost – self-parody, combined with the clear evidence objective truth is secondary to subjective values throughout the book, makes Rees-as-participant an Everyman figure; free to be baffled, petty, joyous, or sad, without requiring the reader to accept these as a judgement either on events or the reader’s perception of them.

After closing his immersive prose-scape with the libretto of an opera about Hackney, Rees puts aside Rees-as-participant and dons instead the role of Rees-as-academic, providing an appendix describing his experimental method, a bibliography, and additional reading. This provides readers, fantasists and sceptics alike, with the option to reproduce his experiences, making the book more than a modern incarnation of the dropping out and tuning in of earlier generations.

I enjoyed this book immensely. I recommend it to any reader who enjoys seeing the world through others eyes, who does not require strict documented accuracy for every moment of a narrative.

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

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