A place of Safety, published by Salt, is a novel about family, relationships and all things left unsaid. Martin Nathan discusses his new book with Laura Volpi.
Set in South London, four narrators tell of events surrounding a tragedy. Yet the more we understand of the circumstances, the less important they become.
I sit down with author Martin Nathan to talk about it.
Martin has been writing since his teens, and in his early twenties one of his novels was picked for publication. Everything seemed to be going in the right direction until a change of editors at his then publishing house caused him to stop pursuing publishing.
“I carried on writing,” he explains, across the table from me in a noisy café, “but for a long time I decided not to deal with the publishing industry any more. Then a few years ago my brother died, quite young, and it suddenly made me think that I should do something with my writing, as it felt important to me. That’s when I wrote A place of safety.”
The experience with an independent publishing house such as Salt has been very different from the previous one, Martin tells me, and he enjoys the more personal relationship it offers.
Martin’s starting point for A place of Safety was the sale of his parents’ house. It made him think about home and what that meant.
“This novel focuses on someone who is exiled from his home through an act of violence in his childhood” he explains “and when he comes back after rebuilding his life and tries to re-establish a past relationship, he uncovers all that was there before.”
The main character, a catalyst in the story’s development, never speaks directly to the reader. We only collect pieces of the truth from those around him. Alice is the manager of an estate agency who struggles to corral her staff as well as her fragmented and complicated family. David has decided to retire and sell his house, meanwhile uncovering all the cracks in his seemingly peaceful marriage to Esme. And when Carol starts looking for a home together with her boyfriend Andrew, all these worlds collide and nobody is left unscathed.
“There is a deliberate ambiguity in the book, a general feeling of doubt, and it’s not something I would want to resolve” Martin says. “It’s how life is: you don’t get answers to all questions. Like in philosophy, in life if you find the answer then you’ve got the wrong one. ”
A keen reader of Heidegger and Spinoza, Martin finds the search for meaning very stimulating.
“You might not get answers, but you get deeper questions. It is becoming increasingly significant to me how the world of rationality and planning is in conflict with the instinctive world. This is something which is very much in this book: you don’t actually solve any problems in the rational world.”
“In Building, Dwelling, Thinking by Heidegger and The Poetics of Space by Bachelard,” he continues “both reflect on what a property, a dwellings means to you, and how your being is not just located in you but it extends to the spaces around you. I like where that takes your mind, and how it stimulates some thoughts about the whole idea of home.”
Martin grew up mainly in Holland, and today divides his time between London and Eastbourne, but this novel is set in a very specific part of South London.
“Brixton, Tulse Hill and West Norwood are areas where I lived for many years. My father was born at the end of the road where I lived which is actually the setting of this book. There is something about that particular part of the city that I find very interesting. I was there for the Brixton riots in the 1980s. Everything was burning or being smashed up… it felt like the world was ending.”
Although the riots are not specifically mentioned in A place of safety, a few significant scenes, such as when a car goes up in flames in front of a stunned child, echo those memories.
Home in A place of safety is a mixture of minute yet important details: an old stove that does not work properly, the smell of semi-stale Greek food in a family-run deli, the lock on a garden shed. Hovering above it all is an eerie cloud of things that haven’t been properly communicated.
“Certainly in my family there was a huge amount that was unsaid,” Martin tells me. “The new book I am working on at the moment is focusing on that. It is based on letters that are part of my family history. I am very interested in the idea of subtext, and what is buried beneath, and how much communication is really about power play, it’s a struggle.”
“What I would like people to take away from this novel is just being perplexed, and realising that the world is a bit stranger than we think it is. You get immersed in a place, everything becomes familiar, but if you step back and look at it from the outside, you see the strangeness, the interesting things that happen, people’s rationales, dreams and obsessions.”
Martin will also have one of his monologues performed at the Young Vic in December, as part of their digital project My England.
“I think this book might raise questions in your mind about your life and how you see yourself in relation to other people and I think it’s always good to ask those types of questions.”
“So where is your place of safety?” I finally ask.
He laughs. “No, I don’t want one. I like the edge and I am always searching for new things.”