I wish I could remember where I got the recommendation for John Fuller’s tiny little novella, Flying to Nowhere, originally published in 1983. I got the book a few months ago but only grabbed it off the shelf on Monday evening because I wanted to read something completely new, something I had no idea about before opening the cover.

This is what greeted me:

The three novices walked fast down the margin of the hay field. In the great heat the tall grasses stood feathery and still, until the striding sandalled feet parted and crushed them. The hems of the woollen robes caught the seed tips and dragged them. Stems bowed and sprang, sending out tiny clouds of grass fruit.

That last image – tiny clouds of grass fruit – is lovely, don’t you think? The book has barely enough pages (88 in my edition) to earn being called a novella. It’s more like a long short story. But what a story.

In the field with the three novices are the harvest girls, scything grass, and they avoid looking at the novices, but the novices stare at the girls. One of the novices, who collects his observations in a notebook, thinks the following when he looks at the girls:

Their strokes are like the strokes of the knife on used vellum. The erased word serves its turn and is restored like dead grass to the elements. The field is the book of nature to be freshly inscribed by our brother the sun.

I just love that image of erasing a word from old parchment. Now the tone of this novice is a bit self-important, and clearly he’s keeping himself at a contemplative distance from the everyday tasks of the world about him. Later, his detachment will come back to haunt him.

Despite this bucolic, peaceful introduction the story, things turn dark quickly. It was impossible not to think of Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose because Fuller’s story is set at an isolated monastery (on a Welsh island) and involves a creepy mystery. Pilgrims to the island have been disappearing and the Bishop has sent a man, Vane, to discover what’s going on. Which he does, eventually, but at great cost. And what’s actually going on is much more interesting than the little bit that Vane manages to uncover.

The story of Flying to Nowhere was wonderful – unexpected, slightly otherworldly situations and unique characters along a spectrum of innocent to evil. The reader guesses quite early what might be going on but there is no sense of disappointment at this easy understanding. The language Fuller uses to tell his story was so exquisite I didn’t mind if in the end the “mystery” was somewhat obvious. The mystery is completely beside the point.

Fuller is a poet and that influence is really strong. So much so that there are a few moments of confusion. This could have been a source of frustration but with Flying to Nowhere I was more than happy to just get lost in the imagery, even if it meant I wasn’t exactly sure what was being inferred, or even what was happening at certain moments. I would love to read this strange, lovely little book with a book group sometime, because it would be interesting to hear and discuss different interpretations. Especially of the final scenes…

The novice’s story is really only a tiny part of the whole book but I’ll finish with this quote from one of his sections because I really liked it:

The windows of the cells were so small and high that the moon simply cast its ghostly patches on the ceilings without generally illuminating the sleeping shapes and their few possessions. And yet the outlines seemed quite clear in the half-darkness; the scrubbed bowl, the scowling cherubs at the shoulders of an oratory, the metal clasps of a book on a small table.

The novice who was shortly to undergo the night of examination reached out his hand and touched one of the clasps. His book was not finished, and he thought it might never be finished. The reflections in it of things as they really were could be no more, he decided, than insufficient reflections of things only as they seemed to be, reflections of reflections, moonlight patches at a pathetic remove from the sun.