Archive for the ‘novel review’ Category

Although born in Somerset, John Branfield moved to Cornwall in 1961, where he wrote much of his fiction; including titles such as Nancekuke and The Sugar Mouse, Cornish-set novels aimed primarily at adolescent girls. He was a well-regarded author of fiction in the 1970’s and 1980’s, who, like D.M. Thomas, seems to have given up that part of his career sometime c.1990. Where Thomas returned his hand to poetry, his first love, however, Branfield re-emerged in the early twenty-first century as a biographer of the Newlyn School. This book then, could be said to straddle the two phases in his career both literally and figuratively. Written in the 1980’s but not published until 2001, the novel is structured around Newlyn School paintings.

45cb845a15f38_breathEach chapter begins with a reference to a painting – its title, date, artist and a description – as in a catalogue. Words only go so far however and I feel that the book could be improved considerably if the publishers had gone to the expense of printing full colour reproductions of each painting, or a related work, on the facing page at the beginning of the chapter. Perhaps this was one reason for the book’s not being published when it was first written – the expense of both the printing and the acquiring of rights to do so may have been prohibitive and it’s conceivable that any or all of the writer, his agent and publisher may have felt as I do. Today though, the reader may partially circumvent this problem through use of a computer, or any other device connected to the internet: a quick search on the web retrieves images of many of the paintings without any difficulty (although some are fictitious).

These paintings are used to illustrate a simple tale of obsession slowly destroying a marriage. The protagonist, Roger Trevail , is a writer experiencing a creative slump that, we are led to believe, may be a permanent decline, (no doubt the pun is intended anyway but poor copy-editing occasionally renders his name as ‘Travail’). On one hand, Trevail could be seen as a fictionalised agglomeration of the Tangye brothers, Derek and Nigel; writing short stories, Cornish non-fiction and memoirs of leaving London & setting up in Cornwall complete with children & animals. On another though, there are elements which suggest something of a roman-à-clef – most notably, of course, in both Trevail and Branfield’s interest in the Newlyn School.

Rather than shrinking from any such accusations though, Branfield plays with them – Trevail experiences a touch of envy that contrasts the honesty of painterly self-portraits with the subterfuge of writerly roman-à-clefs, suggesting that critics allow painters a greater freedom than they do authors. Later, indeed, Trevail asks ‘who the hell is J.B.?’ in response to one critical review. We do not know either, in the context of the fictional world, but it would be difficult to imagine that Branfield had used his own initials here subconsciously. There is also a curious foreshadowing in chapter 3 when a novel about the Newlyn School is laid aside by Trevail. It’s difficult to know just how much that is a coincidence and how much it is a black joke at the author’s own expense.

The title of the book itself is a reference to a Stanhope Forbes lecture delivered to the Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society in 1900 in which he described the plein-air philosophy of the post-impressionist Newlyn school as ‘a breath of fresh air’. Although the style is varied in the book here, it would be more than generous to bestow such an accolade upon Branfield. In addition to the catalogue-like entries which begin each chapter, some chapters are comprised entirely of them; others include a brief history of the school, a short story by Trevail, mock newspaper articles,  and his wife’s memoir. Just over fifty per cent of the chapters though, are written in the first person of Trevail with a sort of navel-gazing intensity that matches his character’s obsession.

Trevail cannot understand artists producing work that is average, thinking they should give up, somehow unaware that this is himself. Given the possibility raised above of some degree of autobiography being contained in the story we might wonder if Branfield is himself trying to work out whether or not to persevere with his calling. He invents the Newlyn school artist Denzil Hooper, who burns all of his work in a pique of despondency. Later, Trevail tries the same trick with one of his own manuscripts but he believes fervently that painting is a more delicate record of creation and knows that he has drafts of this manuscript elsewhere. His wife sees the stunt as childish attention-seeking.

It’s difficult, then, to see what this book has to say, if anything, about the Cornish experience. Difficult, indeed, to see it as any more than an artist trying to work out his problems through his art and comparison with other artists. For some writers that might have been the Bloomsbury Set, but Bramfield has a clear passion for the Newlyn School. Very few of the artists in that group were Cornish and their work largely foisted an English bucolic idyll of simple, honest, peasants onto Cornwall. Here, like in those paintings, ‘the trees are in full leaf and block the view of the valleys and hillsides’.


Golding and Thomas won critical acclaim for their fiction in the twentieth century, but their lack of direct engagement with Cornwall in their work means that few even realise that they are Cornish.”1

So I wrote in March last year.  In the 1980’s, for probably the only time, Cornish writers were the recipients of critical acclaim and sales recognition as never before or since.  It was during this time that Rosamunde Pilcher made the break from Mills & Boon writer to international bestseller, with the widely praised The Shell Seekers, a book later adapted for television in several different countries.  The Cornish setting of that book was overt but the Cornishness of D.M. Thomas and William Golding, despite each writer’s very real pride in their roots, could easily escape the attention of any reader.  Both writers were as commercially successful (give or take a million or so books!) as Pilcher and yet they met with even more critical acclaim than she did.  Golding, still most famous for his debut – Lord of the Flies, won both the Booker (for Rites of Passage) and the Nobel prizes in that decade while Thomas was also shortlisted for the former with his novel The White Hotel.

Thomas stopped writing novels at the end of that decade and returned to his first love, poetry.  Recently perusing his website I was interested to see that he had embarked on a project in 2010 to read all of his own novels: something which he had famously never done for any of them since publication.  Imagine my surprise then, on reading this sentence in his overview of the project: “Pleasant surprises: The authentic working-class Cornishness in ‘Birthstone’ –far from the imported ‘Cornishness’ of a Du Maurier”2Birthstone was only Thomas’s second published novel and certainly not his most famous, perhaps that is why I had missed it?  Thomas goes on to say of his his reading:

“My first attempt at a novel, after 20 years of poetry only. Fearing I wouldn’t be able to fill up 200-odd pages, I threw in all my obsessions, like a mad cook. They included: Cornwall, ancient stones, sex, psychoanalysis, Cornish dialect, stockings, suspenders, my mother, my father, my sister. (Well, the last three aren’t obsessions, only memorable figures in my life.) The resultant dish I still like.
Perhaps strangely, it’s my only novel where I’ve ‘explored’ Cornwall and Cornish characters and speech.
I revised it for the Penguin paperback edition. My editor had said there were too many ‘bodily fluids’! There are still quite a few.”3

S1421072o, what to make of it?  In light of Thomas’s revisions, I should first make plain that the copy I read is the revised edition, although oddly published by Gollancz and not Penguin.

There are, indeed, still quite a few bodily fluids – blood, piss, sperm – you name it, it’s here. It has to be said that there’s also a hell of a lot of rather kinky sex, although not written to titillate. Both these aspects feed into the Freudian aspect of the novel, which is strong. The protagonist is schizophrenic, often losing several days at a time to one of her many other personalities. These consume her consciousness, leaving her with no memory of her actions (or, rather, of her alter-egos’ actions) and an inordinate amount of Irish-Catholic guilt. Yes, the novel may be Cornish but the protagonist is not. I’ve noted in past reviews that the outsider is a familiar and useful character through which to explore notions of identity and here we have several. Given Thomas’s comments, above, perhaps it’s fairer to read this novel in those terms than the last time I did so. Here, there are several outsiders and each contributes to the novel in a different way.

The protagonist I have mentioned – she is our window into this world and the vessel through which we explore ideas of psychological problems and Cornishness. A second, minor, character is an Oxford academic who is presented as starchy and aloof – a clear contrast to the other characters that helps to underline ‘the otherness of Cornwall’, to borrow a phrase from Bernard Deacon and Philip Payton. Superficially, this character and the next two I’ll mention could be taken to be lazy stereotypes but they’re saved from this fate by superb writing: even the smallest dramatis personae come to life on the page, made substantial by Thomas’s prose. The final two outsiders are arguably the two largest and most important members of the cast beyond the protagonist: an American tourist couple with whom she stays. From Grass Valley, the Bolithos are here to visit ‘the old country’:

‘We’ve been pronouncing our name wrong all these years! According to the registrar – who’s a real dish – it’s Bol-eýe-tho! Would you believe it? Don’t you think it sounds nicer, honey? From now on we’re Mr and Mrs Bol-eýe-tho. Okay?’

The Bolithos, of course, represent a distinct aspect of Cornishness – the diaspora. Although earnest they are not so much seeking their roots as embracing them – they sing the same hymns after all. From their point of view, they are Cornish and see no impediment to their fitting in locally and having a good time. The diasporic theme is further explored through the character of Frank Wearne, who has travelled the world, working down the mines of almost every white settler state and Mexico – a country recently keen (long after this book was written) to promote its Cornish heritage (museums, diplomatic visits and heritage ties) – whose impacts are explored briefly but touchingly. The visitors are staying in Pendeen and, at this time, there was of course an active mine still offering employment in the village. Geevor, though, remains a shadowy presence in the novel – glimpsed but not explored – and most miners present in the text are either dead or retired as if, in the 1970’s, Thomas is acutely aware of the shift that is taking place in the Duchy from heavy industry to tourism as a principle source of income.

Nowhere is this  better represented than in the Polglaze family: Arthur Polglaze also travelled the diaspora in his youth but is now a successful local builder looking towards retirement in a bungalow of his own making. His wife, Elsie, is that prototypical Cornish mother: a blur of activity as she chatters and bakes; cooking, washing and cleaning for half the village and tourists alike, twenty or even ten years later she’d most probably be running a café or a B&B. When we first meet them it’s for Sunday dinner, followed by a service at the Methodist chapel where their son, Tom, is a steward. Tom is a product of this changing Cornwall (indeed, at one point the protagonist describes him as a ‘changeling’ – a word she uses to describe her own condition) – at once the perfect Cornish son, a lighthouse officer and rugby forward as well as a Methodist steward, he is also a popular figure in the pub, where he drinks and smokes with the best of them, and with the ladies – he’s not afraid to take advantage of the tourists. Like all the locals here, he exhibits an earthy humour – good-naturedly playing on people’s misconceptions.

His old man, he played in the band. Music is perhaps the most overt manifestation of Cornish culture in the book: songs and hymns are sung not just by the choir and by the Bolithos but at every gathering and the brass band is never far away. Perhaps that is a side of Cornish culture, perhaps on the wane, visible only to insiders: I remember seeing an interview with Jack Shepherd once in which he discussed his direction of a Wycliffe TV episode (‘Standing Stone’), he noted that brass bands were a theme in W.J. Burley’s novels but he felt that a folk band was more authentic and appropriate. Music is a powerful symbol. It’s probably fair to say that if music is associated with Cornwall at all these days it’s not the communal activity that it once was. Music is though, something to which the poet can relate. Birthstone is clearly written by a poet: Thomas’s prose is bewitching; conjuring images and playing with words and references effortlessly. It’s also an occasionally difficult but richly rewarding read, dealing adroitly with many of the themes identified in the ‘New Cornish Studies’ (as well as Freud) before ever that term came to be used in a way that is both insightful and light-handed whilst remaining relevant.


  1. 1. Broderick, L.G., 2012. Whither Cornish Literature?.  Accessed 4/11/12.
  2. Thomas, D.M., 2012.  Novels.  Accessed 4/11/12.
  3. Thomas, D.M., 2012. Novels – Brithstone. Accessed 4/11/12.

images2Voog’s Ocean: a historical drama embedded with magic realist and spiritual overtones and a poetic and compelling new novel from Alan M Kent.

Readers of Kent’s previous novelistic output such as the social realist trilogy of Charlie Curnow books may be initially surprised that Kent has now shifted his attention to the opposite end of the historical spectrum. However, this dovetails exactly with what appears to be one of Kent’s key themes in his writing: a thorough and thoughtful examination of the Cornish identity and the Duchy’s impact on the wider world.

The geographical sweep and attention to detail in this novel is superb. Beginning in West Cornwall Kent introduces us to a fogou builder named Voog – who, after an unforgiveable indiscretion at the expense of a local village chief, is banished from his home. Displaced, he undertakes an epic seagoing journey assisted by a broad cast of unusual characters, many of who represent the evolving dynamic between pagan spirituality and the emergence of Christianity. Without wishing to ruin the plot of the novel Voog’s final stop on his journey works as an intelligent foreshadowing of Cornish migratory patterns in years to come.

The most striking thing about Kent’s writing in Voog’s Ocean is its sheer lyricism; something fitting with both the period in which the novel is set and the tone of many of our remaining stories from this era. It is also worth remarking on the verisimilitude of Voog’s voice. Having read countless novels where the narrator’s voice is clearly that of the author; it is refreshing to see in Kent’s sensitive and sparing use of dialect the cadences of Cornish speech. In addition to this I would commend to the reader’s attention the insight and understanding contextually relevant to Voog’s status: he knows what he knows and is an engaging and convincing narrator because of this. However, fans of the earthy humour and honesty Kent evinces in much of his written output will also not be disappointed. This is mainly due to the fact that although gifted with a poetic, storytelling voice Voog does not flinch from Kent’s trademark dark humour or covering the more unsavoury elements of the period.

As well as being a meticulously well-researched historical novel, Kent’s narrative also makes some interesting use of magic realism. This dovetails well with our lack of concrete knowledge of the era, and the myths and legend prevalent at this time – many of which were created by travellers such as Voog.

Rooted in Cornwall but with an acute awareness of the Duchy’s context in world history, Voog’s Ocean represents another positive phase of Kent ‘s journey to establish and delineate the specifics of Cornish identity.

I’m very much enjoying listening to the current BBC radio series Foreign Bodies which charts the history of twentieth century Europe through its fictional detectives.  This is social history explored through literary device and it works well but it also chimes with a conviction that I’ve long held: that W.J. Burley’s books are one of the more authentic Cornish voices in modern fiction.  The press release accompanying the series offered this explanation for its significance:

“In crime fiction, everyday details become crucial clues: the way people dress and speak, the cars they drive, the jobs they have, the meals they eat. And the motivations of the criminals often turn on guilty secrets: how wealth was created, who slept with who, or a character’s role during the war. The intricate story of a place and a time is often explained in more detail in detective novels than in more literary fiction or newspapers, both of which can take contemporary information for granted. “1

Wycliffe became very much more famous than Burley during the latter part of the author’s lifetime, a circumstance that he struggled to come to terms with: it would seem that the successful TV adaptations were a somewhat Faustian pact.  We live in a world where it is easy to deride the popular as the populist and success in the arts is often met with accusations of simplicity, as if nothing of any value can possibly appeal to the masses.  Mirroring my contention with the Wycliffe novels, it is worth pointing out that Alan Kent has made just such an appeal to affirming a recognisably Cornish representation in the Wycliffe TV serial2.  Before appearing on the small-screen, Burley did receive some critical praise for the Wycliffe books3 but it’s probably fair to say that the same kind of cultural snobbishness that could write off those adaptations as mass entertainment of little inherent worth rapidly saw those novels relegated to the insultingly named “English Cozy” genre.  It’s ironic then, that the detective series to which Wycliffe is most often compared, Georges Simenon’s Maigret, should also be adapted by ITV and yet suffer none of this cultural baggage; perhaps the fact that the author was Belgian helped to save him and his character from Little-Englander attitudes?

It may seem peculiar to review the seventeenth novel in the Wycliffe series here before any of the earlier ones but I wanted to approach the topic with relatively fresh eyes and so chose one I had not read before.  For readers new to the character, it’s worth noting that all the novels stand alone and, as such, they can easily be read in any order.  For those who wish to read them in the order they were written in there are several little in-jokes concerning the development of police work during the time of the novels: written over a period of more than thirty years at the end of the twentieth century we see a lot of changes in the nature of the work (the introduction of computers, new forensic techniques and the forever shifting relationship with the mass-media) and in wider culture (posters on college bedsit walls change from The Beatles to Oasis, anti-smoking sentiment gradually creeps, brass bands are replaced by night-clubs, close-knit communities are encircled by tourists and second-home owners before fragmenting and reforming across a wider area facilitated by the modern ubiquity of car ownership).  The one constant is Wycliffe, who never ages despite those around him getting promoted and retired through the course of the series.

Wycliffe and the Dead FlautistWycliffe and the Dead Flautist was first published in 1991 and another period detail from then that I’d almost forgotten is immediately to the fore: the resignation with which we expected an annual hosepipe ban.  Here the rivers are low, the ground is hard and the plants are dying.  In what’s called literary fiction (another genre name I despise – isn’t all fiction literary?) such a setting would provide a major element in the story; here it is mainly background detail – the very same kind of detail that was used to discuss European history in Foreign Bodies.  The ever greater freedom of movement to Europe is also concisely expressed here as Wycliffe returns from a car holiday in France and muses on retiring there: both concepts really at their peak for the middle classes at that time; this is contrasted with rising disquiet about the influence of the EC (forever a concern in Cornwall) and with global warming.

The novel opens with a scene between young lovers, sneaking out after dark for an assignation.  The relationship is delicately presented without a word wasted – a hallmark of Burley’s writing – the assignation takes place on a creek in the upper reaches of the tidal Fal and the landscape is instantly familiar to anyone who knows the area: redolent with the moist, musty smells of the wood and the sweet rottenness of the mud when the tide’s out.  Burley sketches landscapes well – never over-describing but always writing enough for the reader to recognise places or else hang the details of his own imaginings on the framework.  What he really excels at however, is writing atmosphere and he relishes exploring the psychological burden of people in a small community bound together through circumstance and convenience and how they react when those circumstances begin to change.

“His wife was silent for so long that he turned to face her.  She was looking at him, her eyes so coldly speculative that he was disturbed.  She said in a level, unemotional voice: ‘Up to now I’ve never troubled about your little games but if you’re mixed up in this then you’d better watch out.’

He was alarmed; he had never known her either so bitter or so self-confident, usually she took refuge in hysterical weeping.  ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about Beth.  What am I supposed to have done? Unless you tell me – ‘”

In many of his Wycliffe books, as well as others, he examines this particular facet of human nature through the device of an extended family living together in a large house; here he has two such families to play with: the local landlord and their hereditary estate lawyers living in an adjacent house, both some distance from the village (granite and slate core, sprawling bungalows around the edge…).  By the time he wrote this book Burley knew exactly what he was doing with his prose and here he has fun throwing around literary references (Poirot, Frankenstein, Perry Mason) and joking with the reader regards literary conventions:

“’It’s overcomplicated.  The story writer creates a theoretical framework for a crime and by devising alibis and false trails he turns it into a test of wits.  The real-life criminal, if he’s going to get away with it, keeps it simple and, if we catch him, it’s as much by luck as by cunning.’”

The mystery here is one of Burley’s better contrived ones: you may guess whodunnit, but explaining why is considerably more difficult and guesses are, of course, useless in a police procedural: evidence is required.  Burley cast Wycliffe in Cornwall because that was his home for most of his life and the place he knew best; just like the difficulty in guessing why the killer did it in this book it’s difficult to explain why they should be such effective depictions of Cornwall: I very much doubt that was his intention.  As the BBC indicated though, the devil is in the details.  Burley did not set out to write about Cornwall but he couldn’t help himself, his love for and knowledge of his birthplace seeps into the pages of each Wycliffe book as the necessary detail for crimes committed and their detection.  To write convincingly about people’s lives, passions and motives without that kind of detail would be nigh-on impossible.


  1. Anon., 2012. Mark Lawson to examine European crime fiction on Radio 4. Accessed 4/11/12
  2. Kent, A., 2003. Screening Kernow: Authenticity. Heritage and the Representation of Cornwall in Film and Television, 1913-2003. In: Payton, P., Cornish Studies: Eleven. University of Exeter Press, Exeter pp. 110-141.
  3. Keating, H.R., 1977. The Corpse on the Dike. The Times. London.

My first book review for Cornish Literature was of Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! by Alan Kent.  There’s a certain symmetry in having my first after the long summer being of a book entitled Proper Job but it does lead to unavoidable questions regarding the imagination and creativity of some of our writers.  The similarity in title is further 13078050reflected to some degree in the contents of the novels (both are comic novels focusing on the travails of a teenaged protagonist) and in the authors (both are university lecturers).  Delve a little deeper, however, and the similarities are revealed to be rather superficial: Alan Kent is a literature lecturer at the Open University whose figure looms large over contemporary Cornish scholarship and creative writing, Ian Hocking is a psychology lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University writing self-published fiction; Proper Job, Charlie Curnow! charts a year in the life of a Camborne school drop-out as he attempts to make something of himself, Proper Job covers a couple of weeks in the summer of one St. Austell student studying for his A-Levels.

Hocking has built a bit of a reputation for himself since the launch of his first book, Déjà Vu, in 2011.  That book won praise and sales for the author as he became one of the more successful authors to take advantage of the ease of digital publishing.  Since then, Hocking has been fairly prolific – releasing the first sequel to that cult science fiction work (another is due to be released shortly), a short story collection and this, his first comic novel, whilst continuing his academic career.

The cover of the book features a quote comparing the novel to Spike Milligan and the first chapter, in which the protagonist (Andy Carrick) lands a job in a packaging factory, does feature the kind of word play that Milligan was famous for in a set piece drama right out of the Goon Show back catalogue. I found the execution of this unconvincing, with the jokes not quite coming off and although not wholly terrible I was concerned about where the rest of the novel was heading. Chapter two though, sees an immediate change in both the writing style and the humour, which gives me cause to wonder at the gestation of the novel: perhaps there was a significant gap in the writing here and a firm editor might suggest removing or reworking the first chapter, a luxury not afforded to the self-published author who can, understandably, be too close to their work for objectivity.  Any writer who can compare St. Austell to Birmingham though, in no matter how an offhand way, has my attention.

“Relatively few tourists stop in St. Austell, where granite has rotted to china clay, and fathers stamp the white dust off their boots before coming into the house at tea time.”

Ian Hocking clearly has some talent for creating imagery, combining the factual and the descriptive with an eye for the beauty of small things.  In fact, the more times I read that sentence the more impressed I am: it combines social commentary with history and science in a way that is not patronising or forced and finishes by rooting it with experience on the level of the family and individual.  Hocking employs the first person throughout in his narrative and it works very well, as the novel settles into the kind of fish-out-of-water situation led comedy tradition of P.G. Wodehouse.

[Note – Spoilers Follow]  After losing his job in the factory after just one day, Carrick visits the pub with his friends where he spies a girl he immediately begins to fancy; his friend then arranges for them to meet again in a paint-balling competition.  During these little adventures we are also introduced to Jeff, a Cornish grotesque.  Jeff owns an ice-cream company and it is here that our hero works for the rest of the book.  It’s a situation which is ingenious in its simplicity for looking at Cornwall: a thin plate of glass dividing locals from tourists – a division which adds the complication of reflection.  This is a comic novel, however, and this ground remains largely unexplored.  Where it is touched upon, tourists are shown to exist on another plane of reality (such as when they happily mill around but refuse to get out of the way of an oncoming vehicle).

The Ice Cream company also serves as a medium through which to explore employment in Cornwall.  It’s notable that Andy’s friend, Doogie, has to keep this job because he can’t get any other.  Andy himself spends a day wandering the streets of St. Austell asking every business for employment and the ice-cream drivers are all older men, unable to find another job ‘at their stage of life’.  Most significant of all is the exchange between Andy and the ice cream company mechanic.  Andy is, at the time, applying to study physics at university and is amazed to discover that the greasy, disreputable mechanic has a PhD.  Higher education presents a double-edged sword for the intelligent of Cornwall, as the author probably knows only too well: study well and far and you suddenly find yourself unsuitable for any jobs at home, effectively sending yourself into exile.

Other parts of the tale are a little less consistent with ideas of Cornishness, however: a simile involving a cricket bowler completely lost me, I’m afraid.  Perhaps Ian Hocking is a keen cricket fan but it’s not a sport with a strong following in the Duchy and I’m sure I won’t be the only Cornishman to struggle with the imagery at that point.  In fairness, it’s worth pointing out that Andy Carrick, despite his name, may well be a second generation immigrant anyway (that point is not entirely clear) and is always a bit of an outsider – differentiated both by his love of science and by his middle class accent.  Using an outsider to explore notions of identity is a familiar literary device but the employment here is inconsistent: at times (particularly in that first chapter) Carrick constantly translates dialect for the benefit of the reader (and, presumably, comic effect – although this was one of the jokes I found a bit flat and repetitive) whilst later on in the story he occasionally struggles with interpreting dialect himself.  Again, this is probably something that an editor would help to sort out.  There were a couple of apparent anachronisms as well: apparently eBay did exist in 1999 but I’m pretty certain I hadn’t heard of it then, in fact I’m pretty certain that most Cornish had still never been on the internet at that stage and certainly wouldn’t have heard of it – it’s also odd that a Baker’s son would have mobile internet, crucial to the novel’s closing segment, in 1999.

Yes, 1999.  The eclipse summer.  What better climax could there be to a Cornish comic novel with an ice-cream selling hero than the eclipse?

Is the subtext of Patrick Gale’s Cornish set novel “A Perfectly Good Man” a not quite good enough man, a merely adequate man, whose undoubtedly good intentions always lead to complex, unforeseen consequences?

The story tells of a man’s struggle with faith, marriage and yes, morality, which are inextricably bound together. It’s not an easy story to get to grips with, pulling in various developmental strands, which permeate the narrative along the way (rather like life) but it is somehow compulsive. While it wouldn’t be true to say I couldn’t put it down, I was quite keen to pick it back up again, especially as the characters, who develop in a non-linear way, took some time to get to know.

A more disparate group of people one could barely hope to meet. Barnaby Thomas, the plodding vicar, is appropriately named, for it means ‘son of consolation’ . His wife, overweight, and seemingly dull, is stalwart, making little emotional impact, but somehow always there. Her sudden demise is the most exciting thing about her. Then there is the paralysed rugby player who, early in the book, takes his own life, the daughter who only later realises unexpected happiness, and other dysfunctional characters, compelling in their very ordinariness.

Barnaby is a man whose needs are subsumed by those of others, as the complications of modern life unravel. Everyone, it seems, has secrets but they will always out, even the relocated and reinvented paedophile is caught out in the end. The book contains happinesses but largely reflects upon the dulled existences we all lead, mundane and unexceptional, driven by our individual imperfections and flaws. Beneath the veneer of respectability lies dysfunction: Barnaby’s childhood, Phuc’s drug and alcohol ridden preferences, and the dark shadow of the creepy Modest Carlsson, through whom childhood damage is perhaps most heavily alluded to.

Set in the author’s West Cornwall, the story is told from multiple viewpoints, so that our perspective of the key character (hero is way too strong a word) fluctuates wildly. Indeed, so good and dull is Barnaby that when he does show a darker side it is almost the relief that creepy Modest has been seeking. We almost want to see him fall, be more human and less divine. The reader, according to Gale’s own website, becomes God-like, enjoying an informed overview of all the characters.

It’s hard to write well about a good man as wickedness is much more fun and more readily understandable. Gale achieves it through snapshots in time which throw light on Barnaby’s development. Ultimately though, does Barnaby actually feel anything at all? One feels the full force of his childhood repression when Dot dies, an event he deals with matter of factly before moving on.

It is a novel of shifting identities, of individual agency at play even when events happen outside our control. Dorothy, the wife, becomes, against her will, reduced to Dot, minimised in her husband’s eyes and those of her community. Lenny becomes, against his will, paralysed, so that his life is no longer worth living. Modest Carlsson, convicted pedophile becomes vile but acceptable following a prison sentence. The Vietnamese son, Jim, reverts to his original name of Phuc. There is secrecy, suppression and illicitness, self-damage and at times, questionable motives. Daughter Carrie, for example, takes many years to realise her sexual tendencies and preferences. The flawed characters are highly believable, however, because they are so beautifully imperfect; it’s just like real life. At times, the novel can become heavy going with the multitude of twists and turns though.

What is alarming at the end is that it is hard to feel empathy or indeed sympathy for any of the characters; none of them, except perhaps Lenny, manages to draw one’s pity, and perhaps Alice, Barnaby’s lively, outgoing, adventurous sister, the one flicker of light in the book, destined for an early and sticky end. There is almost no hope for a happy outcome and certainly no expectation of such, as the characters continue to live their lives along the same fault lines unable to traverse the wide gulfs between them. But others disagree with my final analysis. Some have found the final chapter uplifting and enlightening. I merely found it appropriate to the rest of the book.

Electric Pastyland - guitar + pasty

Bit whisht, Charlie Curnow !

Fer wun thing, there ent no chapters in un ! Bit ard readin ubm all’n wun go. . .

What there is a lot of, is cussin’ – Charlie Curnow must be the cussinest Cambornian around (I’ve met a few, and they ain’t as cussy as that, even from Troon way…). The count of f+++s and c+++s per page must be pretty high – there’s little Celtic language in here but a great deal of Anglo-Saxon. The sleaze factor too is pretty high – a strip club and pron factory is a central feature – now guzzon with ee Alan ! – making for unentertaining and, fortunately, not even remotely erotic reading. I don’t much like the idea of all that, although it can be recalled that, topically, at the time Electric Pastyland (EP) was published in the mid-2000s, there was a furore over prospective lap-dancing clubs’ licensing in various Cornish locations. Whereas EP’s predecessor Proper Job Charlie Curnow (PJCC) packed some politics punchily well-aimed, I thought, EP is flabbily amoral. Instead of PJCC’s gritty jabs, EP indulges in set-piece lectures (mostly ridiculing nationalism, or quangoism) which bore. Also, if, like me, you happen not to give a toss about Jimi Hendrix (and I think that’s not too great a crime, in artistic or any other sense), you’ll get pretty fed up of Jimi before you’re very far through the story – “Jimi woz ere” is daubed liberally if not literally through much of the text. Despite this, there’s not a very detailed staging of Charlie or Jimi’s actual music in the story, which is a pity. I’m not asking for scores or tonic sol-fa lyric sheets but we could’ve been given a bit of guitar tabs or something in there to make it seem ‘real’ like. There is a tour involved (I hope that’s not a spoiler) but, unless you’re really rooting for Charlie and pals, the account of it is too humdrum to interest. And see the cover: paired to a guitar neck’s a pasty – a vertically integrated pre-VAT pasty merchant also features – I’d have dearly liked to see the plot wind in with the crimping and the cutting, but, alas, Alan decreed that that detail, too, twas not to be . . .

Charlie Curnow before was the underdog, now he’s pretty much jibbed onto a media studies course as a cynical spectator, even profiteer, and, I suspect, lost most readers’ sympathy.

Onto the text style: I noticed a bit of verbal repetition or ‘echoing’ – if you could electronically search the text for the expressions “doubt, self loathing” and “poor old” I think you’d find a few occurrences cropping up close to each other: a sign of writing fatigue and also of too light an editorial hand. And assuming that the reader knows no Polish, without Google Translate the interspersed Polish SMS messages are unenlightening. Even if you do use Google Translate (or Babelfish, or asking a Pole, or whatever spoddish means you happen to use) they still don’t add much to the text – though I s’pose it was a nice idea. Another nice idea was the attempt at introducing action into genuine Cornish locales, although, except for the very first pages – which are promisingly gripping – these sequences just don’t gel realistically.

I enjoyed PJCC and I’m struggling to find EP’s good points: the humour of PJCC is there, buried slightly under the Jimiography, smut and spouting. The KLF, for example, was an inspired choice of name for an insurgency (the main target of their wrath features also in Alan Kent’s poetry and film work). EP does also feel right in the detail of place and, to some extent, of people  – with consistent, tho’ possibly inaccessible, dialect – it’s not un-authentic. Its plot, by failing to mesh believability with interest, lets it down. EP is not awful, but its trying to fill a quart pot with PJCC’s pint of bitter, a few years on, did not work very well – it’s a disappointment. At least it was for me, although reviewers on Amazon seemed well pleased with it – other readers’ views and comments are welcome here – come’zon ! 🙂

So, in sum, I’ve got to conclude that a bigger change in plot would’ve led to an improved novel – let’s hope the Cult of Relics is that.