An intimate and captivating portrait of four people struggling with the concrete confines of city life by first-time novelist Melissa Harrison. A lyrical debut novel about innocence and experience, class and consumerism, Clay captures the delicate balance of life in the city, between young and old, between nature and development, between recklessness and caution.

At first I thought of Melissa Harrison as a 21st century E.B. White, replacing the agricultural setting and middle-class characters with a South London park used mostly (abused?) by low-income inner city types, writing for young adults instead of children. More about the “young adult” label later.

Now I envision her as a modern-day John Clare, one of England’s most famous nature poets.  If Clare lived now, a career as a full time poet would hardly be an option; in all likelihood he would need to move to the city, get a day job and write in his spare time.  During these free hours, I think Clare would, as Ms Harrison does in her blog, record his detailed observations of the intertwined lives of humans and the natural world—the clay—around them. Although, Ms Harrison suggests that we humans are clay too.  One of the novel’s characters says:

We are the clay that grew tall.

A statement like that dismantles an “us/them” mindset and reveals an ineffable, undeniable unity in everything.

Ms Harrison truly owns the power of observing.  Lucky for us readers, she also owns the literary talent to enable us to see and hear and feel and smell as she does.  When she lends us her heightened senses, we have her ability to see and understand the connections among everything that exists.

I hope I haven’t made Clay sound like a save-the-world appeal disguised as a novel. For me it was more like “look at what we still have, even in the middle of the city, look at us all living together”.

The four main characters are real people.  I found myself continually wondering how a 30something woman could write such a convincing older woman, Sophia, caught between pleasing her daughter and enjoying her granddaughter!  An 8 year old boy known as “TC” is a chronic truant who spends his days exploring the local park.

TC loved this time of year.  Like most children, he was on intimate terms with the earth.  The under-tens deal in little sticks and pebbles; they are artisans of holes, experts in the types and properties of stones; they appreciate the many qualities of mud and its summer corollary, dust.  

And then they grow up and the ground is just whatever’s underfoot.

Sophia’s granddaughter,9 year old Daisy meets TC in the park and forms a sort of friendship.  Her consumerism and spoiled ways are more typical of that age group than TC’s.  His is a single-parent family living in a flat; his young mother often does not have the money for TC to buy lunch at school. She has kicked TC’s dad out—for spousal abuse—and the young boy who only saw Dad’s good side misses him deeply.  

Jozef, a Polish farmer whose outdated agricultural practices did not jibe with European Union megafarms, emigrated to England where he subsists on minimum-wage jobs such as serving in a chicken takeaway shop.  His family had tended the farm and its land for generations; he seeks out the trampled bits of nature to be enjoyed in the crowded, concrete city and after he repeatedly notices TC in the park when he should be at school, Jozef cautiously befriends him.

We are permitted into their lives for one year, from St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24) to St. Bartholomew’s day.  We live the seasons of the park, of these people, of the clay. The chapter titles recall England’s former agricultural rhythm: Lammas (wheat festival), Martinmas (harvest/preparation for winter), Plough Monday (start of the agricultural year) and my favourite, Dog Whipping Day (October 18). (Have fun looking that one up!) These titles remind the reader that as most of us are untethered to any land, we derive our rhythms from machines. 

Clay is fully contemporary, urban, austere.  I find a unparalleled purity in Ms Harrison’s writing: each word exact, every description pared to its essence but containing a fullness, the way one short line of poetry can convey a complete experience. I absolutely loved it!

9.5 out of 10 Strongly recommended to readers who enjoy literary fiction and to all those city dwellers looking for life in the urban landscape.  Dr. Who fans will recognize two references: daleks and petrichor.