'It's a pretty mean galaxy.'

Red Shift by Alan Garner is the story of three times in one place, around the hill of Mow Cop in his native Cheshire, and the villages nearby. It is his fifth book (1973) and unlike the previous four contains nothing of overt fantasy. There is no unexplained communication between the three times -- the Roman, the Civil War, and the present day -- yet the overall effect is somehow fantastic. It is an adult book for teenagers, quite violent and painful all the way through, exploring people's hurts in three worlds.

The last few survivors of the destroyed Ninth Legion are forced to take to the countryside and adopt tribal ways. Logan is the commanding officer; his men are Magoo, Face, Buzzard, and Macey the epileptic berserker, who can be made to "flip" by stroboscopic stimulation, focusing on starlight through a spur-rowel. Macey's secret is his possession of an ancient sacred stone axe. The action here is brutal; with the massacres being against the Roman code. But they have to survive.

In the Civil War the village and its families are divided. The Rector and his son both have stiff consciences, and this leads to more killing, even after the surrender of the defenders. The stone axe is rediscovered as a thunderbolt, which in that time they took to be cast down by lightning, and a source of good luck.

In the present day Jan is moving to London with her parents; she and her boyfriend Tom are pained at parting and try to arrange to meet once a month. Railway stations and shops and tea rooms and old paths form their meeting places. Their relationship is taut, loving but difficult: the highly intelligent Tom flips from pedantry and quotation to maudlin self-pity and cosmic despair. Jan is more urbane in some ways, and she swears, but she doesn't understand and can't handle Tom's destructive psyche. The stone axe, the "Bunty", is a special object between them, a pledge of their love. The violence is emotional, between them and with Tom's parents.

The action moves seamlessly from one period to another. There is nothing so clumsy as direct parallels: Alan Garner is far too skilful and realistic a writer for that. The three times touch at a few points because they are all human beings and the same problems recur with us all: loyalty, love, understanding, conscience. It is mostly in dialogue, very short clipped exchanges, arguments, single words.

They stood in the shelter of the tower, holding each other, rocking with gentleness.
'I love you,' said Jan.
'I'm coming to terms with it.'
'-- love you.'
'But there's a gap.'
'I know things, and feel things, but the wrong way round. That's me: all the right answers at none of the right times. I see and can't understand. I need to adjust my spectrum, pull myself away from the blue end. I could do with a red shift. Galaxies and Rectors have them. Why not me?'

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