One can only imagine the enormous pressure and expectations that come with debuting as a novelist, or even starting out in other mediums or pursuits. How do you make a statement? How do you come up with something original in which people will invest ? And how do you keep them interested and eager for more? How do you know if what you are producing is any good? If all these questions are used in a checklist, it can safely be said that Cathy McSporran’s debut novel ticks all these boxes and more.
Cold City is a compelling story about Susan Pherson who, having been admitted into a psychiatric hospital, journeys between two alternate worlds: the hospital and another permanently arctic world. In latter reality, believers of Christianity and of Norse mythology and religion are in conflict with each other. Pitting Norse against Christianity gives the novel a backdrop of danger and adds another dimension to surreal night world Susan drops into. Homosexuality is strictly forbidden and, to add to the tension, there are reports of wolves attacking and killing people. In this alternate universe, Susan learns that her gay brother is married to a woman and that something more sinister is at work with the Christian leader McLean. McSporran creates a setting which never lets the reader forget that the alternate world truly is grim, cold and terrifying.
To begin with, the switching between the two worlds in Cold City is done really well and it is intriguing to see how one affects the other; the lines between what is real and what is imagined (or dreamt) by Susan are often blurred. Then the cold world begins to take over, leaving the world of the hospital somewhat abandoned and unexplained – and even a little pointless.
Cold City tackles the very relevant and sensitive subject of religion and attitudes towards homosexuality with an appropriate balance of seriousness and humour. It raises questions as to how one should view the other and, more specifically, whether the Catholic faith and homosexuality can co-exist. The use of Susan as a focaliser/narrator is effective; you experience all the confusion and disorientation that Susan experiences right there with her. A theme which is very strong throughout the novel is that of family and what people are prepared to do for family and for the happiness of others. The relationship between Susan and her brother Jamie is used very well to illustrate this. The chemistry and dynamic between these two is admirable and emotionally engaging. McSporran takes the time to flesh out the bond between the siblings and even pushes this to its limits.
Despite these points, the novel is by no means perfect, particularly in the manner in which the story is wrapped up. Events in the alternate world end somewhat abruptly (perhaps intentionally) leaving the reader still desiring an explanation and a sense of closure. My sense that the plot is resolved all too conveniently, and the device of using the two alternate worlds and its significance can here be questioned. Another issue which requires more attention and better development is the presence of the “Odinist” faith that clashes with Christianity. Although there is mention of the former at the beginning and also towards the end of the novel, further exploration of the mythology of Norse gods, the rituals, the beliefs and how they oppose those of Christianity would make for a stronger indication of conflict and threat.
Yet as a debut novel, Cold City is ambitious, fresh, original and successful. McSporran shows depth of characters, a solid feel for setting and very effective combination of atmosphere and tension. I think we can expect more great writing from Cathy McSporran and perhaps this novel might even pave the way for a sequel or series.
Hamzah M. Hussain