Thursday, July 22, 2021

The Sky Cage - Ann Prior

Bayntun’s bookshop in Bath, in pale stone, with its pointed gables, arched bays, latticed windows and dark railings, might be the sleepy consulate of a small half-forgotten mid-European country. I imagine men in epaulettes removing their plumed helmets as they enter to report the latest alliance with the Free City of Hav, or perturbing news from the Kingdom of Zenda.

It was in fact originally the Post Office sorting depot in the days when utility and elegance were not strangers. There is a doorbell entry system, and inside glazed bookcases slumber amid a hushed atmosphere. Below, however, in the basement, the reader is free to rummage.

It was here I found The Sky Cage (1967) by Ann Prior. The title and the dustwrapper design attracted me, so I studied the contents more closely. It is about a ruined city in the aftermath of a disastrous war: we are not told where or when, but the period is historic as horses and carts are in use and fighting is with swords and bows-and-arrows. We follow several groups of young people who have survived the destruction by hiding in holes in the city and become scavengers and wary explorers until the occupying forces leave. These images suggest more recent scenes, from the Second World War.

The survivors come together, discover a secret royal stables, still full of horses, and a cellar of provender, and make an escape towards the mountains. Their story is told by each of the characters in turn. One of them is a beautiful but dark and complex youth, another a princess of the deposed house, a third the daughter of a priestess with glimmerings of second sight. The author handles the seventeen different individuals deftly, but even so it is quite a cast to keep distinct in the reader’s awareness. 

The novel is unflinching in its descriptions of violence and decay but there is throughout a mythic quality to the scenes and the intertwining fates of the individuals, something dreamlike.  The writing is in some ways terse, almost distanced, but the sentences carry a freight of meaning and poetic depth.

The dustwrapper description says, perhaps rather defensively, that the book is not a fantasy nor an allegory but simply a well-told story. It is not presented as a young adult novel (though I have seen it later described as that), and indeed on the other flap is an advertisement for A S Byatt’s first novel, which suggests the literary context the publisher envisaged.

The author was sixteen when she wrote the book. Born in 1949 in Christchurch, New Zealand, she came to England at the age of nine when her philosopher father took up an academic post there. She was the author of one other novel, Mirror Image (1969), a sort of sequel which I have not yet read. My crinkled copy of this is one of her own which was submerged when her barge Medusa, moored near Oxford where she was then studying, sank. It had later been sent to her old English teacher, an inspirational figure for her.

Online obituaries in The Guardian and The Shetland Times outline Ann Prior’s later life.  They describe her as ‘a cook, author, artist and adventurer.’ She liked living by the sea and so often chose jobs on remote islands: she ran a guest house and restaurant on Shetland for some years, was the cook at the Fair Isle bird observatory, worked in the Falklands, and even ran the post office on South Georgia, in the remote South Atlantic. 

The tributes also say ‘From a very early age, books were the great love and mainstay of Ann’s life. She had hundreds of them, almost exclusively stories of adventure and exploration both true and fictional, which she read and reread.' There is no mention of any further fiction after her two youthful books. 

(Mark Valentine)

Image: Lorne Bair Rare Books


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