Bite-size Books: A Long Day in Lychford

Book cover: A Long Day in Lychford - Paul Cornell - a woman silhouetted against treesThings aren’t the same in Lychford since That There Vote (no, not the one about the supermarket). There are new divisions between friends, neighbours and witches. With terrors beyond the magical boundaries, the question of borders has never been so charged.

There’s not many authors I would trust to write speculative fiction inspired – even driven – by Brexit, but Paul Cornell has repeatedly given us nuance and compassion in his Lychford novellas. Here, we join a strung-out Autumn who is feeling more isolated than ever – as the only person of colour in Lychford, she can’t help but take it personally. Given some of the comments made in her hearing, so she bloody well should.

And she’s pretty sure she knows how Judith voted.

The relationship between witch and apprentice has always been fractious; this could be the thing that rips them apart. In the wake of a heated argument, Autumn heads out for a night down the pub. It’s not that she’s spoiling for a fight, but she chooses the pub most likely to give her one – and finds Lychford’s most unpleasant, deeply racist old man Rory Holt ready to take her on. It could be just another night after Brexit, but by morning Mr Holt is missing and Autumn (and her epic hangover) is taken to the police station for questioning.

Long Day has garnered a number of unkind remarks from readers who presumably feel reading a book with a Remainer protagonist is too close to criticising Brexit (yeah, whatever). For my money, Long Day skirts passing judgement on Brexit politically – it’s much more interested in the social frictions the vote inflicts on (or reveals in) a certain small rural town in England.

Yes, it portrays Rory Holt as a frothing Daily Fail acolyte who voted Brexit because he’s a raging jingoistic racist, but it doesn’t conflate all Brexiteers with Rory Holt. It also strongly suggests that Judith voted Brexit (although Judith being Judith she may have voted Remain and simply be refusing to discuss her democratic choices, thank you very much – a position I have a great deal of sympathy for, much to the frustration of the polling people). In the end, it’s deeply critical of Rory Holt and racism, and it’s sympathetic to the principle of embracing outsiders, and apparently these days that’s apolitical statement in its own right.

It also gives us the passionate and heart-breaking point of view of a slightly paranoid and deeply angry black witch, whose political sympathies and rage won’t stop her from trying to rescue everybody (including both the raging racist and a terrified Polish truck driver) and who – having accidentally obliterated the borders – finds herself fighting to re-establish them before Something Awful tries to take advantage.

Reflecting the question of Brexit in the unexpected mirror of the mystical borders of Lychford gives Cornell the chance to look at micro-aggressions and unconscious prejudice alongside the easier dismissal of the Rory Holts of the world. Is Autumn right to see racism everywhere? It doesn’t matter: it’s not about intention, but about implications and perception. Her inner conflict about being someone who believes strongly in open borders – but who will nonetheless fight to keep one closed – was poignant to say the least.

And I enjoyed the glimpses of what does live beyond Lychford’s borders: just as the end of Lost Child raised questions about right and wrong, here we can see that (MINOR SPOILER, mouse over to read) the foreign can be terrifying because we have no shared frame of reference, not because there’s any intentional threat.

One of the things I love about this book is that the witches feel a responsibility for everyone in Lychford, regardless of how rude, self-centred or outright racist they may be.  Judith is irritated by, well, everyone, but will burn herself out trying to save them. Autumn will redefine her limits to atone for her terrible mistake. Lizzie will turn the other cheek and make all the tea in the world if it gets everyone home safely and talking civilly. Consideration and compassion are watch words I can always get behind.

So if this is my least favourite Lychford novella to date (and it is), it’s only because the first two set an absurdly high bar. Besides, I’ve noticed previously that Lychford novellas often don’t fully sink in (or wallop my feelings about) until the second reading, so I’ll reserve final judgement on this one until I reread it in the future. For now, it’s a worth addition to the canon – and clearly important in setting up a future crisis on the horizon. I shall spend the meanwhile worrying terribly about Judith’s health.