The protagonist of I. J. Kay’s debut novel, Mountains of the Moon, is an Englishwoman named Louise (Lulu) Alder. Or Kim Hunter, Beverley Woods, Jackie Birch, Dawn Redwood, Catherine Clark; some of her names are aliases invented by police for her protection, some are invented by Lulu to escape her past. After her release from prison—a ten-year term for a crime she may or may not have committed—the thirty-one-year-old Lulu sits at a railway station café waiting for her train to a bail hostel in Reading, when the barista leaves the counter to ask from where she hails. “I shrug… I probably sound a bit Holloway Prison, a little bit Ladbroke Grove, a little bit Suffolk, Yorkshire Moor, West Midlands, Dorset, Sussex, Kent. A little bit of everywhere and nowhere you can name.”
This is our girl. She is a woman lost in the world of England’s dismal suburbs after a deeply troubled childhood packed full of enough neglect and abuse to rival literature’s most shredded protagonists. Kay—a pseudonym—divides Lulu’s story into five sections: “Overtures And Beginnings,” “Act One,” “Act Two,” “Act Three,” and “Finale And Reprise.” This highbrow framework, which even includes a preliminary cast of characters, is in stark contrast with the meat of the novel: a chaotic, though hardly ever disorienting, splicing of three distinct voices—Lulu at roughly ten, twenty, and thirty—each written in a chopped and electric, working-class English dialect. The framework is an elbow to the rib, an ironic poke that brings to mind Lulu’s physically and psychologically abusive mother, Joan, who spent her youth in the Royal Ballet and gallivants around their English suburban house belting Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. But there is little joy in her performances—indeed, whatever joy she expresses is perverted by bitter nostalgia. She tells Lulu and Baby Grady, Lulu’s half-brother, “… your mission in life is to destroy me,” and, “I sacrificed everything for you… You owe me everything… if it took your whole life you wouldn’t ever be able to pay me back. I was in the Royal Ballet for Christ’s sake, my name was in lights at the Royal Opera House.”
I read the novel on my couch, my dog in the rattan chair across the room. He watched me, a pile of ground and cooked taco beef with a nose, and he would tell you, if you spoke shaggy, brown dog, that I winced nearly as much reading Mountains as I did reading Hubert Selby’s grotesque masterpiece, Last Exit to Brooklyn. Kay’s book, simply speaking, made me do things. It made me make many fists, as though I could stand up to the crowd of ghoulish characters who abuse Lulu. It made me scowl and say fuck you and hear my wife shout What! from our bedroom because even the people Lulu loves defile her. It made me put it down for two weeks and then pick it up again, wearily, because I knew I would have to slog my way back into the first-person and slummy narration of a ten-year-old Lulu, which two weeks prior I had been choking on. It made me fold my legs Indian-style on the couch—I stand six feet, four inches—clutch the book’s binding with both hands and hunker over it like a kid in the childrens’ wing at the library because I forgot who I was and where I was and wanted its world to surround me. It made me run to my office and rifle the desk drawer for a pencil and scribble on a post-it, How many revolting, abominable, selfish people are there? Too many to count!
There are, Mountains of the Moon makes clear, many hateful and selfish people out there. The question is: Can Lulu survive them?
As a girl, to escape her mother and Grady’s father (a monster whose fate will come to play an important part in the novel’s mysterious and tangled subplot, which doesn’t fully unravel until the blood-soaked third act—imagine a crescendo of grizzly murders that rivals the finish of The Godfather), Lulu imagines the deserted field behind their house is a savannah, where she becomes Zulu Lulu:
I get under the wire and I’m wild in the Masai Mara, long grass int stinging cos I is an impala, my feets don’t even touch the ground. I could run all day if I had to, never knew no one so quick as me… I is a leopard, I lets go and leaps the gap. When last I get on this smiling rock, I shake my spear and roars at the gods.
Before Baby Grady was born, Lulu lived peacefully with her grandparents and listened to her grandfather tell stories of the Mountains of the Moon, the nickname of the Ruwenzori Mountains in central Africa. Their relationship—a tragically short one—is one of only a handful of loving bonds that she makes amidst a storm of toxic ones; at times, I felt almost dizzy—so many monsters smashing into her!—caught in a whirlpool of ugliness, of neglect, betrayal, rape. But the good people that Lulu meets save the novel from becoming a macabre tour of the depraved and despicable.
One of these good people is Anton Konstantin, a wealthy and aristocratic patient at an elegant and vast psychiatric facility like something out of a Salvador Dali dreamscape. One day, on the run after escaping a juvenile detention center, a thirst-starved and sun-battered Lulu follows a long wall with “big old trees behind it, hanging over making shade” until she reaches a hut, and here, the reader is allowed a sigh of relief, the novel’s first in two hundred pages, as Lulu meets the middle-aged Anton: “Newspaper folded under his arm and soft gray clothes, a beautiful velvit gentleman.” Anton is a tragic and sad man. But there is also beauty and great tenderness in him. He educates Lulu. He teaches her French and has her read the classics.
… in the daytime me and Anton always came to my place and done lessons warm in bed. One time the wind brought beech leaves in on us. Another time snow. We had so many blankets on us it was almost rude, we tended they was buffalo skins and sang home-home on the range. Last week we got smothered in blossoms. He makes me smile, so beautiful it is when he smiles, I keep trying case I can get one. Sometimes we can’t tend, so we hold on to each other’s heads and take turns crying. All these years and we never arsts, where we come from or who we is.
Their relationship is the most touching and strange in the book. For almost four years, they live an idyllic life full of tenderness and mutual love, until, as may’ve been inevitable, at least in I.J. Kay’s world, they begin sleeping together.
For Lulu, Anton is as good as it gets when it comes to romance. Later, in one of the novel’s most heart-wrenching and powerful scenes, the thirty-one-year-old and hollowed-out Lulu has a reunion with the tall, quiet and handsome Peter Eden—“The Oak Tree,” she calls him—a man who betrayed her twenty-one-year-old self, but whom she can’t resist trying to love, despite his wife and daughter, whom he promises Lulu he will never leave.
“I don’t know whether to fuck you or call you an ambulance,” he says.
“Call me an ambulance,” I gasp.
“You’re an ambulance,” he says. Takes me down, drapes me over the work surface. Pete had a vasectomy. For all his presence I can’t feel him, I can’t feel his hands. Listen, the kettle clicks off. Listen, Pete’s trouser zip. Listen, in the cupboard under me. Pellet poison, rattling, in little silver-foil dishes.
This sort of darkly stunning, clear and rhythmic prose turns Kay’s novel into a living, breathing thing. I found myself reading certain sections out loud, just to listen; although at times I shuddered reading another “arst” in place of ask—my dog gives a little whimper when I do that—but I nitpick here. Combined with the fractured, unchronological narrative, the shifting patois occasionally had me lost. But I welcomed this, mostly, because Lulu’s voices enliven the novel, and Kay’s keen eye seduced me. Lulu tells us that Gwen, a “friend” who will bear responsibility for the ten years Lulu spends in prison, “looks like an old cigarette, one that got wet and dried out twice.” Later, she says that Gwen “always looks like a gasoline sales rep, at the end of the day. Stinks of diesel and Poison perfume.”
Diesel. Poison perfume. Kay makes us want to see our heroine ignite and watch her explode. Near the end of the novel Lulu travels to Africa to shore up a loose end connected with the event that landed her in prison. The trip culminates when Lulu, deathly ill and trying to make her way home to England after months of travel, is bamboozled and nearly run over by a taxi driver. As I read, I found myself pounding the arm of my chair, cheering her on as she became Bruce Lee—although perhaps Lisbeth Salander draws a better comparison—and pummeled the poor fellow so brutally that she had to resuscitate him. The man never stood a chance—she would have died before playing bystander to another monster rolling over her. And here, in Africa, certain things become clearer to Lulu: “Heaven and hell is the same place.”
John Kersey lives in Chicago with his wife and their daughter. He teaches creative writing at Elgin Community College. More work of his can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.