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This review is taken from PN Review 232, Volume 43 Number 2, November - December 2016.

Cover of Living in a Land
Nicolas TredellBeing and Neverness
Sean Ashton, Living in a Land
Eros Press, 2016
£6
An epigraph from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness precedes the 148-page monologue that constitutes Sean Ashton’s novel Living in a Land: ‘It would be in vain to deny that negation appears on the original basis of a relation of man to the world. The world does not disclose its non-beings to one who has not first posited them as possibilities.’ Sartre’s existentialism stressed self-creation by action, by what one does, but acknowledged that one also defines oneself by inaction, by what one does not do. Ashton’s novel offers a speaker who constructs himself primarily by negation, by telling us what he never has and never will do.

‘Never’, in literature and life, is often the adverb of loss, finality, or regret. We have, for example, Lear’s fivefold recognition that Cordelia will not come again (‘Never, never, never, never, never’); the remorseless reiterations of Poe’s eponymous raven quothing ‘Nevermore’; the lost possibility of fulfilment in Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ (‘the door we never opened / Into the rose-garden’); the failure to conform to the pattern of a Lawrencian Bildungsroman in Larkin’s ‘I Remember, I Remember’ (‘that splendid family / I never ran to when I got depressed’ and ‘the bracken where I never trembling sat’). But Living in a Land is no elegy; it does not suggest the speaker regrets those things he has left undone or will not do.

Ashton’s monologue relies much on anaphora and grammatical parallelism. His most prominent way of starting a sentence is: ‘I’ve never’, as in this passage:


I’ve never had to reach for the hammer ...


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