This novel, the first in Kent’s Trelawny trilogy, can be read on three separate levels. The first is as an homage to rock music, the second a coming of age story. The third level is a depiction of Cornwall in the early 21st century.
Analysing the first of those readings, Kent has an obvious love and knowledge of rock music from the 1970s through to the 1990s. The text is littered with quotes (never out of place) from famous songs and discussions of some of the trivia topics beloved of students (“top ten rock stars who died too young” for example). Many people could revel in this pop-culture aspect of the novel, either as they reminisce their own youth or as they live through such obsessions now. This feeds directly into the coming of age story (incidentally, who’d have thought it possible to write a novel in Cornish dialect and save use of ‘dreckly’ for a knowing “Cornishmen do it” aside on the last page?) which focuses on less than a year in the life of the eponymous Charlie Curnow.
Such stories have become a staple of literary fiction, Hollywood films and TV dramas; the path is well trodden. Kent manages to cleverly play on our expectations however, knowing just how familiar the pattern is to his readers. At the beginning of the story, Curnow is a naive young virgin, a teenaged school dropout currently living on the dole in a Troon council estate. He is also ambitious, however, and clever enough to plan a way out of his situation. I was in a couple of bands playing in Cornwall myself, as a teenager in the 1990’s, and knew several others. Even before the final, undignified and protracted, death of the mining industry this was seen as a legitimate route to success in the Duchy, much as football is today in Africa. [Please do not read the remainder of this paragraph if you wish to avoid the most oblique of plot outlines and spoilers.] As we follow Curnow’s progress and successes, we sense the impending fulfilment of our educated expectations only to find, at the last, that although he may now be more wise and experienced in the nature of relationships (and in that, I include friendships as well as romance) he lives on the same estate and is most likely (not explicitly expressed) on the dole.
I mentioned that I was once involved in the music scene in some capacity in Cornwall. I confess, however, that I did not grow up on a council estate, nor did I know many people who did. Most of my friends were like Bev, some were like Mickey, and this is rather the point I’d like to make regarding the third level of comprehension in the book. This is an accurate representation of (principally youth culture in) modern Cornwall. Social classes are parochially mutually antagonistic but are united by a sense of marginalisation. The experience of growing up in Cornwall, with its drug culture, high unemployment and lack of a political voice is probably more akin to that of growing up in areas such as Glasgow and Newcastle than the tourist experience of places like Newquay or Padstow. In fact, the comparison with Glaswegian circumstances invites another comparison, for Kent gives voice to this sense of Cornwall as effectively as writers like Alan Warner or Irvine Welsh do of Scotland.
Unfortunately, this voice is written entirely in Cornish dialect. I’m not a fan of dialect writing; I think there are other ways with which to create a sense of place and atmosphere without resorting to such crude techniques. Normally, they make a book much harder to read, as the reader has to form unfamiliar sounds in his head and struggle through bizarre spellings and syntax. Here, the writing style did not impede my reading but I’m mindful that it would do so for others not familiar with the dialect. This I think, comes down to a question of audience. The cover of the book features gushing praise from reviews in The TLS and The Guardian, as well as The Western Morning News (I wonder if that has ever happened before). Published by a small Westcountry firm, however, I’m curious as to how many copies were sold outside of Cornwall. It would be a pity to think that a work of such high literary merit and unusual voice were restricted in its market, but I think the decision to write in dialect may perhaps have excluded English readers as much as any marketing strategy. In essence, writing a novel in dialect serves to restrict the readership when, in fact, any Cornish readers could equally well imagine the accents and voices in their heads without such help: such dialogue writing may have a long pedigree but I’m not entirely persuaded by arguments of contribution to unique culture – Rabbie Burns, after all, wrote in the style that he did not out of some high-minded principle, but because he was largely uneducated.
Writing in dialect also presents another problem; namely editing. Perhaps books published by smaller companies are less professionally edited, but this is not always so and it seems to me that writing a novel in dialect must make the editor’s (who is probably unfamiliar with the dialect) job much harder. Here, the text is littered with spelling and grammatical errors. Beyond such basic editing mistakes, the character of Spry suddenly changes name to Spryer a few pages before the end and a literary joke about “your” and “you’re” on the final page is ruined by using the incorrect term.
Whilst discussing jokes, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that phrases like “the arrogance of twenty thousand Cornishmen who knew the reason why” may raise a smile from Cornish readers (they did from me) but for all that they may entertain they appear as that worst kind of contrivance – the kind which might be written by the swot at school who thinks he’s even more clever than he is – and serve to detract from the narrative. As Cornish readers we know it for a reference to The Song of The Western Men and not an oblique suggestion that most Cornishmen are arrogant or that they all know a hidden secret but, for all that, it is transparently the author’s voice and not the character’s. Throughout the book Kent uses a limited third-person narrative voice, so such smug conceits are jarring when they arise but fortunately their appearances are few and far between.
Overall, despite my gripes about editing and dialect this is a highly enjoyable novel which also serves to give voice to a disenfranchised group of people: a valuable contribution to British as well as Cornish literature. It has been out of print for some time now and second-hand copies are beginning to approach ludicrous prices for a paperback. It would be nice to think that that fact alone might provoke one of the big publishing houses to look at it again and carry out the professional editing job it so badly needs.
“You should be proud o’where you come from… I mean I know I’m not from the estate, but it’s got something about it. The right attitude… I can’t explain it.”
|Proper Job, Charlie Curnow!|