Mountains of the Moon

There are novels that take hold instantly, of your mind and of your heart, and fictional characters that remain with you not as a memory but as a presence. Mountains of the Moon, by I. J. Kay, is one of those novels, and Louise Alder is one of those characters. “Three keys,” she begins, “one for the main entrance; one for the letter box on the wall outside and one for my brown front door, which comes complete with fist holes and crowbar dents.” Louise, in her thirties and released from prison after ten years, contemplates her new home and the adjacent park. “There’s a bench and a slide and probably a bird if you wait long enough,” she observes. “It’s used mostly by dog owners and heroin addicts…. I’ve never understood the bond between people and dogs, people and drugs, always wanted a real friend myself.” This voice will carry us over 300 pages and echo beyond them. It will take us across England and fleetingly to Africa; into the mind of a child; into crime and insanity.  

I. J. Kay (reportedly a first-time author in her fifties, employing a pseudonym) opens the novel toward the end of the story. Louise is released from Holloway Prison and given a “pound note and a one way ticket to Reading,” where a squalid flat and a factory job constitute a fresh start. There is, of course, no such thing for a woman whose past is as indelible as her scars.
Suddenly, we are back there. “Running’s important especial if you want to get somewhere fast, like the phone box outside the Taylor’s. I is fast even in my jarmas…. I wait out the front door for the police and the ambulance.” This is seven year-old Lulu (Louise). She lives with her crazy-cruel mother and brothers, Pip and Baby Grady. Their domestic world, shaped by their mother’s moods, is violent and chaotic, particularly when Bryce, Baby Grady’s father, shows up. “Downstairs words is swarming,” Lulu reports as another row erupts, “things get louder and smash.”  Bryce “looks like rabies and his shirt off, case he gets the blood on it. He loosens his hands on her throat, to see if she’s learned yet.”
Lulu’s vigilant eye misses nothing; she describes brutality and kindness alike with a child’s lucidity. But this young voice, one of the most memorable in modern fiction, is sparingly deployed. It never becomes an irritating lisp. Similarly, the novel’s tender moments, rare and fragile, never congeal into sentimentality, and its restless narrative, looping back and forth in time, repels complacency or ease. Pathos is cut with laconic humor. “It’s important to know what’s poisonous,” Lulu realizes when she reads a child’s nature guide, “case one time you wants to kill yourself.”

Instead, she endures. There is incarceration in a remand home (the British version of juvenile detention) — and later in prison for crimes that materialize first in the shadows, briefly, and then in dramatic flashbacks. As a child, she witnesses what happens to little Ellie, who disappears, and she herself barely survives a similar attack. Later, as a young runaway, she dispenses startling retribution (“The headlights of the train shine on the back of his eyes. On the back of his open mouth”) and lethal mercy (“She lifts her head nice and I pull the pillow from under it”).

All of this – the semi-feral characters, the squalid English demimonde, the prevailing climate of fear and menace – should quickly become oppressive. But Mountains of the Moon is instead weirdly buoyant. Kay’s sentences, plain yet eccentric, have a seductive, sprightly rhythm, and her descriptions are both lyrical and tactile. Lulu in her tree fort, for example, “Magines if the sky is water. The starling flock swims together like don’t know how many fishes. They shift and shape and swirl and come to land, on Mr. Baldwin’s roof…[he] bashes his dustbin lids together to scare them off.”

Captivated by a book on Africa, Lulu views the neighborhood waste ground as Kenya’s Masai Mara, where she, a swift hunter, and Baby Grady hide from danger. Somehow the novel’s suspense, masterfully calibrated, is intensified by her fantasy and by the teasing glimpses we get of the crime at the novel’s core. There is love here, too, albeit ill-fated, both in Louise’s adult life and, most disturbingly yet movingly, within the walls of a mental asylum where Lulu hides out for three years. Finally, there are the Mountains of the Moon, which she reaches in a journey that almost kills her. “I look up and see what an ancient Greek saw,” she declares, “ice mile high up in the sky, mad as the moon, mad as ice, thrust from the jungle heart of Africa.”