BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Four characters struggling to make their way in the world of Manchester, UK in 2025 become entwined in a conspiracy surrounding human trafficking and augmentation.
PROS: Innovative prose blends with the fascinating character of Y and a detailed setting.
CONS: Some unfocused elements and a less engaging latter third.
BOTTOM LINE: Read this and look forward to Hill’s next one.
Graft is Matt Hill’s second novel, published four years after his debut The Folded Man, a finalist for the Dundee International Prize in 2012. Set in the city of Manchester, England in the year 2025, it follows the character Solomon (“Sol”), a mechanic who runs an illegal car-jacking and upgrading operation. Thanks to his partner Irish, he is torn from the normality of organized crime and thrown into the middle of a human trafficking operation by way of coming across the character known as Y.
Y is one victim among many in an eldritch system of augmenting and selling humans: A woman given three arms, a tooth pendant, and a memory wipe that essentially leaves her as an empty shell. We also come across two other characters: Melanie, the officiator of a brothel (and Sol’s ex) and Roy, the self-hating assassin who works for the repugnant ‘Reverend’ holed out in a football ground turned shanty town. These characters and their focalized experiences provide a character driven explication to Hill’s vision of a future Manchester, although it soon becomes clear that Sol and his progressively intense attachment to Y serves as the main focus of the novel.
Y is an absolutely fascinating character. The reader traces her time in the ‘Mansion’ under the control of the Manor Lord, a prelude to her meeting with Roy. These chapters – placed intermittently between installments set in the present of the text – are the backbone of the narrative. Hill skillfully reflects her emptiness perfectly in the language. She longs for a sense of self and as readers we sense that the past she cannot remember lies dormant. It may seem ironic that a character with barely any personality could be so interesting, but it is not just the mystery of her origin that makes her shine. It is her reaction to experience, a struggle between a natural sense of morality and the brainwashing that makes violence and fear come so easily. Hill facilitates her world view with a style that takes note of poignant details and fleeting emotions. Y cannot rely on the customary similes and schemata that a normal human being may possess in order to understand their surroundings. There are some constructions here in particular that are thoroughly enjoyable to read, for the simple fact that they are quite beautiful. I definitely want to see more and more of these in Hill’s next novel – and I am fairly certain I will.
The novel is rooted quite firmly in it’s Manchester surroundings; as a British person myself who has spent a few of my weekends in Manchester, Hill succeeds in showcasing a narrator that knows the streets well (I especially enjoyed the reference to Afflecks Palace). There is also a plentiful helping of Northern slang from its city dwelling characters, which will likely be easily deciphered by the non-native reader when observed in context. However, there are times when Hill clouds the narrator’s voice with colloquialisms, something which I feel should be reserved more for dialogue or representation of character’s thoughts. I would rather not see Hill’s words be wasted on cliche or slang when he clearly has a knack for imagery. The dialogue and setting are enough to make this a British novel.
Mel and Roy are useful characters in providing contrasting views of life in the city. Their stories highlight the discourse of disregard for the value of the individual human. Mel cares about her girls and she makes this plain to whoever will hear her, but she and Roy deal in the buying and selling of bodies – in her case for sexual gratification, in his case monetary exchanges for lives. And all the way at the top of this rotten hierarchy is the bourgeoisie handing out catalogs of the latest augmented model.
It is a shame that we don’t see more of Melanie, see her change and deal with her guilt or reconcile her feelings towards her ex-lover Sol. Her story ends in an almost terse way, just as Roy’s part is cut clean away when Sol and Y outgrow their ties to all the other characters. Around this point in the novel (the last ten chapters or so) Y and Roy journey alone back to Y’s original and only place of familiarity – the Mansion. It becomes confusing at times, trying to discern exactly what is going on here, due in part to situations becoming lost in the dazzlingly figurative language. The simile and metaphor make things just a touch too fuzzy, at times when you don’t want to crack a literary code but see things clearly. But for much of the time Hill achieves the right balance. I definitely want to see more novels from this writer. Those times when the prose shines and we see the subtle hint of lost feelings in Y’s mind make their way back are special moments. I will eagerly await his next work and look forward to tracing the development of his style – because I have the feeling it will be something special.