I've heard some of this author's short stories, and I've been impressed. But what about his novel?
Plot and character
In Section 1, Matt (1st person PoV), away from home each weekend, trying to keep a relationship going that without his determination could have been a one-night-stand, feels insecure in Billy's social mileau ("How remote I was from the streetwise culture into which I had become drawn").
Section 2 is a mirror of this, chronologically contiguous. It's Billy's 1st person PoV now, rather than Matt's, and Billy's in London with Matt and his friends - "And in a flash I saw, as never before, that we came from very different worlds. That deep gulfs lay between us, spaces that perhaps we could never cross" p.147. A letter (Matt's) figures large in section 1; the threat of one (from Arthur) affects the action in section 2, at the end of which Billy leaves Matt a note.
Section 3 begins a year later. It's only 20 pages long, 1st person, from Clint's PoV. He's a new character, taken away on a weekend by Matt but he feels that Matt doesn't involve him in decisions. They visit a pub, the pub where Billy works. Clint, like other narrators in this book, is aware of the reader - "As I remarked earlier" (p.166); "I'm curious as to what impression of me you may have picked up from the foregoing" (p.168). At the end, they split, Clint feeling that he'd been taken advantage of.
Section 4 is 3rd person omniscient (or nearly so). It's 6 months later, and the Chekovian gun of AIDS at last reappears. Matt brings Billy back to London again, this time to die. They move in with Archie. The section about his party (p.229-240) would make a good short story. p.252 has an imagined, anonymous flash-forward - "White walls, tiled floors, clack of heels. Square patch of sunlight, pot of hyacinths. This way, Mrs Cresswell. Smile, Billy, it's your mother. We do all we can, of course. It's so peaceful here don't you think?"
We leave Matt and Billy at a cafe table in Greece, where they've watched the sunset over the sea. Billy's been sketching in a graveyard, Matt's been writing poems and stories.
I like the structure, though I'm not sure that section 3's needed. I found the book a page-turner - just as my attention began to flag, a new section/viewpoint started. I noticed hardly any symbolism or patterning, though in the Acknowledgements the author writes that "Readers may pick up echoes of La Traviata in the novel, and indeed I did conceive it as a modern reworking of Verdi's opera". I missed all that.
The plot deals with many common relationship issues - will they phone back? are we going too fast? meeting their parents; meeting their friends. Matt and Billy partly mirror each other's experiences - recalling schoolboy crushes, agonising over decisions, etc. We get a better glimpse of Arthur just before he dies. Until then he's the kind of baddy who's useful plotwise, especially since characters conveniently overreact to him. What was the "firm" he mentions? A call-boy service?
The language is lucid and transparent, no flashy similes or metaphors. The characters are at pains to make clear what's happening and what they think people are thinking. There's a focus on people and dialogue, on the pressures and choices necessary during the early stages of a relationship. At significant moments there's a tendency to "show and tell" or even "tell and tell", which is what happens in novels rather than stories, I suppose -
- "He scratched his chin and nibbled away at his lower lip. He seemed to be trying to make up his mind about me. To be wondering whether, on so short an acquaintance, he could trust his judgement", p.19
- "The past forty-eight hours had changed me - or so it seemed. My life had overturned in a single weekend", p.28
- "It was a moment of acute discomfort. The etiquette of the situation suggested that I should smile, show some acknowledgement, perhaps even go and join him, but I felt a powerful resistance to the idea and a kind of surly doggedness kept me rooted to me seat. To avoid further embarrassment, I looked away in a weak pretence of not having seen him, my mind wrestling with itself in a turmoil of hesitancy. Should I relent, keep my head turned, or simply get up and walk off?", p.39
- "This cryptic response effectively drew a line under the conversation. Spoken in a firm voice, it delivered a clear message: press no further. I took note, swallowed hard and, seeing no other option, determined to forget and relax", p.43
- "It was a scene that was difficult to read" (p.44) "a posture that was again hard to interpret" (p.44) "it was difficult to tell" (p.45)
- "The two of them seemed to share something: a bond, a secret understanding, an elusive intimacy that I could only dimly perceive, glimpse through frosted glass. It made me suddenly aware of my insignificance, my lack of worldliness, my flat-footed vulnerability. How remote I was from the streetwise culture into which I had become drawn. I had stumbled into Billy's life, with flimsy notions about installing myself at the centre of it, and now I could see the truth", p.47
The voices in the final polyphonic section are well distinguished, but Matt and Billy's are less so (which is perhaps why the 2 men get on so well). Their diction is similar, Billy's sounding more literary than I'd expect. On p.125 for example he uses "tomes" "time hung heavy", etc - phrases even I wouldn't use. On p.128 he says "To dispel the gloom" ... "slightly sultry". On p.140 he says "the rush of cool air that wafted over us as we emerged from the stagnant fumes of the city had just the exhilarating effect I'd been hoping for" - this all from someone who claims that "words are not my bag of tricks" (p.151)
The 2 men are also similarly concerned about how others will react, and have a similar approach to self-analysis ("Fear, insecurity, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, they were all in there somewhere" p.137). Both review recent events, searching for signs. Both are aware of the reader -
- "But then again - let's not blink the facts - it was Heartbreak House ", p.30 (Matt)
- "Now don't misunderstand me, I love vegetarian food", p.34 (Matt)
- "As I knew, and as you've guessed, it had much more to do with my state of mind", p.148 (Billy)
And many people use "buzz" as in "the place is buzzing".
"I wake late and lay dosing in bed" p.127; "the other side of the room" p.154 (but he's on a train) "there's an almost audible sigh of relief" (p.232) (can a sigh be silent?).