At first intriguing, Red Shift quickly crumbles into a graceless, obtuse mess whose point is forever obscured. The story deals haphazardly with three men, who live in widely separated times but in the same area of rural Cheshire. Tom inhabits the modern day. Trapped in a go-nowhere life at home with his traditional parents, he is hopelessly devoted to his upwardly mobile girlfriend (who has taken a nursing job in London and comes back to visit him occasionally) and at a loss to figure out his own purpose in life. Another Thomas inhabits the seventeenth century, caught up in local war and strife. And, most distantly, we meet Macey from the second century, part of a gang of local tribesmen fighting for their lives against the Roman threat and other tribesmen.
What binds these men together, superficially at least, is a neolithic stone axe-head each possesses for a time. Apart from that, there seems no tangible story element providing a link from man to man. (For one thing, if Garner is trying to indicate that these three characters are reincarnations of the same man, he does a piss-poor job of it.) Macey's use of the axe gives him terrifying visions, a feeling he is in touch with frightening gods; yet the axe seems to be merely a prop in Thomas's and Tom's stories, having little real relevance to what is actually unfolding in their lives. Or if it does, Garner thoroughly buries his thematic points in inscrutable writing that offers little detail for the reader to grab hold of, as well as reams of infuriating, choppy, incomplete Harold Pinter-esque dialogue like the following:
Aaaagh! Most of this short novel is composed of this kind of claptrap; Garner eschews traditional prose stylings and exposition in favor of a tale told primarily by its principals through dialogue and interaction. And at first, it isn't so bad, mostly in early passages between Tom and his girlfriend and later passages about Thomas. Garner here is essentially telling a story about destiny...I think. The problem is that, to my philistine American eyes at any rate, it all goes nowhere. Perhaps Hemingway and Joyce could get away with being as deliberately impenetrable as they wanted (and I would dispute that), but such an approach does not work for Garner here. Red Shift is a story that is sadly summed up by its final line: "It doesn't matter. Not really now not any more."