A Cleansing of Souls by Stuart Ayris
Stuart Ayris is an immensely powerful and talented writer. His writer’s mission if you like is to ‘bring hope’ and he tackles difficult subjects with humanity and insight. I first read Tollesbury Time Forever (which will be reviewed here next month) and was blown away. Immediately I finished it I picked up A Cleansing of Souls, knowing it had been written some 20 years earlier and expecting it to be good but not as good. I was blown away all over again. Okay maybe the energy is more raw, maybe the writing style less completely original but the unique voice is there and the fact that he wrote this in his twenties (and then waited another twenty years for a follow up) is incredible. If a publisher had picked up A Cleansing of Souls twenty years ago, Stuart’s life course might have been very different. And then, then maybe he’d never have written Tollesbury Time Forever! These sort of conjectures are actually quite germane to an understanding of Ayris’ writing.
A Cleansing of Souls opens to the scene of a seventeen year old Michael waking up next to his dead fourteen year old sister (you can tell immediately this is not going to be a happy clappy read) with the conjecture: ‘What do you honestly do at times like this? What do you honestly do?’ and if the response, ‘Well Michael, he just grinned. And he kept on grinning’, doesn’t hook you, then you’re probably not ready to read this book. It requires an open, questioning mind to fully appreciate it. It blows genre fiction out of the water.
Michael’s story sometimes runs parallel and sometimes in the background to the central character Tom Sparrow, a young man who has his own troubles. And his own story. With its own complications. A shifting of perspective is a feature of Ayris’ work I particularly like. It can make things complex but it’s always purposeful. I loved the central narrative voice. It put me in mind of Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. The narrator stands outside Tom but is clearly for much of the time giving us an interior view of Tom. I love the way Ayris experiments and plays with ‘voice.’ I love the way Ayris uses language in general. He is poetic and even when he is telling us the most grim things he manages to use language not to distance but to draw us in and make us complicit in the emotional story of his characters. Michael should not be a sympathetic character but as the story progresses we really begin to understand how and why his life has turned out the way it has – yet Ayris keeps the suspense going and in the process teaches us that you can’t judge a person when you have insufficient evidence to do so. Because the end is a surprise. A shock. Unexpected and yet makes such sense of a life and the devastation caused to lives that it is heart-rending.
Ayris chooses very difficult areas to write about and he rocks it. His work can be truly enlightening for anyone genuinely interested in issues of mental health. There is no gratuitous darkness, though darkness is there aplenty. Ayris is not buying into thriller/horror genre fiction. He’s telling you something more important. Something real. Something people need to know. And the understanding and self-reflection he exhibits as a young writer is both incredible and devastating. He should never have waited twenty years for the follow up. But then, life has to be lived. Life gets in the way. All I can tell you is that if you read A Cleansing of Souls and appreciate it (I can’t say ‘like’ it because Ayris is so far beyond the cheap five star, ‘like’ share culture it’s ridiculous) then you will be absolutely transformed by The Frugality Trilogy.
If the reader really buys into Ayris work, and reads it as intelligently as it’s written, he/she finds that Ayris always allows, no indeed encourages the reader to ask questions throughout his work. This can be uncomfortable and the reader cannot escape the spectre of child abuse, lurking underneath, and yet the blind alleys you take yourself up in coming up with ‘the answer’ are all controlled (rather than manipulated) by Ayris clever narrative in order to teach you something about your own preconceptions and prejudices.