‘Covehithe’ by China Miéville – 2011 BSFA Award Short Story Club
‘Covehithe’ was originally published on the Guardian’s website.
A man and his daughter are on holiday in Suffolk. He wakes her in up in the middle of the night and Miéville maps out the path they take from Dunwich to Covehithe. The focus on concrete geography and illusive mystery combined with the distance between the reader and the protagonists is reminiscent of Nina Allan but here the cryptic delivery is far more successful than ‘The Silver Wind’. We are drawn in, we ask questions.
For example, we are told that the man is called Dughan but we are not told his daughter’s name. Why is she anonymised? And how old is she? At first, she seems to be very young but when the viewpoint switches to her, she is remarkably shrewd: “All she remembered were his returnings, an exhausted, careful man who lifted her on to his lap and kissed her with wary love, brought her toys and foreign sweets.” This is uncertainty is surely incidental to the story but at the same time it is a conscious decision on Miéville’s part which gives it tang.
Another difference with Allan is language. Far from being brickwall blank, Miéville delights in words and you simply don’t get this in the other shortlisted stories. You have to love him for it, even if sometimes he goes too far: “This close to the waves the land felt, as the girl said, misbehavicious. A good word to make her feel better.” A good word? An ugly word, certainly. It is almost impossible to say, a coinage that looks better on the page than it sounds in the mouth. “Trawlings” and “returnings” works but “extrusioned” is a pointlessly ungainly, particularly when immediately followed up with this far more evocative description:
In the glow of the thing’s own flame they saw edificial flanks, the concrete and rust of them, the iron of the pylon barnacled, shaggy with benthic growth now lank gelatinous bunting.
That is an intelligent, animated oil rig emerging from the North Sea and that is the story.
Inevitably we move backwards to answer the question of how we got here (although perhaps “how” is a little strong):
It was the Rowan Gorilla I. That was the first. No Piper Alpha, no Deepwater Horizon; an undistinguished disaster. A tripod jack-up rig lost to storms and hull-fracture in 1988, on its way to the North Sea. Scattered surely by its capsizing and by 30 years below but there, back. Cramped-looking for all its enormity, latticed legs braced halfway through its platform, jutting above it and below into the sea. In the videos the three skyward leg-halves switch and lean creaking towards each other, sway away again like cranes triple-knitting, as it walks the muck on spudcap feet. It staggered like a crippled Martian out of the water and onto Canada.
We might wonder in passing what the fuck a “spudcap” is but this is a lovely passage, blending the earlier lyricism with a bluntness that suits the beast that has been born. The same is true of the subsequent ones in which the Rowan Gorilla I meets its demise but they also mark a transition point in the story. This is where the story’s genesis becomes a bit too obvious: “The Guardian’s short fiction project Oil stories asks writers from around the world to drill down through layers of cliché and cant to explore the hidden reservoirs which fuel our dreams and power our nightmares.” You can’t say Miéville didn’t meet the brief but in a way he met it too well; an author’s muse should have some mystique.
As we move away from Dughan and his daughter, as the events are explicated, the story loses some of its magic to a humdrum bit of future history that doesn’t ring true. It is revealed that Dughan is a Canadian soldier who happened to be there with Rowan Gorilla I at the beginning. He is subsequently seconded to an international task force that deals with the emergence of further rigs. “National governments subcontracted strategy to the UN Platform Event Repulsion Unit.” Doesn’t strike me as very likely, especially since UNPERU is composed of “scientists, engineers, theologians and exorcists, soldiers”. The whole section is told in an entirely different register; we’ve moved from Nina Allan to Paul Cornell.
We return to Covehithe to integrate the two parts of the story. Again, we flit into Dughan’s daughter’s perspective and a security guard questions her age. “Dughan whispered her name” but Miéville conceals it. Why? Names have power. But if, on the one hand, he is aiming for the numinous, Miéville is also having fun. Having playfully referred to the rigs as “petrospectral presences” earlier, he shifts the tone even further into deadpan humour: “They laid eggs, so, many people said, they must have sex. There was no logic there. They were oil rigs.” In the end, I can’t see this inconsistency of tone as a problem but rather the thing that gives the story its power. It seems an entirely fitting ending when Miéville circles back to his opening style to cap the story:
Dughan turned and took in the length of Covehithe Beach. They were out of sight, but he looked in the direction of the graveyard, and of St Andrew’s stubby hall where services continued within the medieval carapace, remains of a grander church fallen apart to time and the civil war and to economics, fallen ultimately with permission.