“Nettles is a short, sharp, and at first unassuming novel.”
Much like the plant it is titled after, Nettles is a short, sharp, and at first unassuming novel. The narrative is divided between a boy who is bullied upon entering secondary school and who finds a place of relief hiding at lunchtimes in the overgrown wasteland under a nearby motorway, and the recollections of his older self visiting from London for the last time. It is mired, purposefully, in a nostalgia for things which, at the time, weren’t ever that great, but which are at least over now. Even though the older narrator is not looking through rose-tinted glasses and has not forgotten what he went through, there is still a gulf between the two stories; the world of a child touches uneasily on that of an adult.
In the present day, the narrator takes polaroid photos, which are reproduced in the book – they are vague, dark, and ultimately unsatisfying. It’s almost impossible to imbue these images with the significance they are given in writing. But then, it’s a fact that the hugeness of the places and moments of childhood are always rendered negligible and unimpressive when captured in anything other than words. The narrator is visiting for the last time because his Mum is moving away with her new partner. Helping her pack, he notes that “the removal of my childhood was also a removal of the sadness of previous years … I thought my method of addressing the past was easier. Perhaps if I had given Ellen’s Polaroid camera to Mum, she too could have locked her memories away in photos.” But memory, in this book, is never quite locked away: the past rises up, stingingly.
The bullying scenes are graphic and unnerving, related in Scovell’s meticulous and contained prose. The bully is only ever described as ‘He’, so that he takes on the figure of a lover, or perhaps a God. “He said He would Yale me if I told anyone. … The key created a precise point of pain, trying to open my face like a lock, threatening to pierce the skin.” The young boy goes through the motions of puberty with a new awareness of his body, but one which comes from violence rather than lust: “Each movement felt like touching an electric wire.” That could be a sentence about sex, except it is about being beaten up on the school field. We know from the first few pages that He will die. Two explanations are given, eventually: the adult’s version and the child’s. The child makes a pact with the earth, as children do, and it comes true.
The mystery of the plot is less important than the setting. Scovell is at his best when evoking the things that we don’t ever look at, not properly. When the boy sees the underpass for the first time, it is nothing like what he expects. “Contrary to how the area had been portrayed by adults, it was an array of colour and life.” The weeds grow.
Words: Alice Wickenden