This was the fifth book I read from the long list for the Desmond Elliott Prize – I’m chairing the judges this year – and I enjoyed it hugely.
The compassionate and capable 17-year-old Struan Robertson travels to Hampstead from his bleak Lowland town in answer to an advertisement placed by the family of Philip Prys, a literary behemoth and incorrigible philanderer now laid low by a stroke. The family need a nurse for Philip, but it soon becomes clear that Struan’s presence will be a boon to them all.
This is a novel that begins as an enjoyable hatchet job on a certain kind of superannuated literary grandee, and develops into something altogether more thoughtful and moving. Prys’ family, ripped apart by his self-indulgence and their own hardness, have lost the ability to love one another or even to be civil. Struan, having not yet developed the Southerner’s immunity to empathy, becomes a healing influence – but at an increasing cost to himself.
It is a mark of this novel’s strength that it works on several levels at once. On the surface it is a satire that flashes with neat insights and wicked humour. (The author’s summary dispatching of Virginia Woolf’s THE WAVES alone is worth the price of admission, and the sheer viciousness of Myfanwy, Prys’ awful ex, is addictive).
At the same time, this is a book that has a beating heart in the tenderness with which the author draws the character of Juliet, the 16-year-old daughter of Myfanwy and Prys. Poor Juliet – rather plain, rather plump and rather confused – has never been loved or wanted, but there is something bright in her nature that refuses to be rolled over.
‘I’m not shagging anyone, and probably I never will, and anyway, I’m probably a lesbian, I keep thinking about Celia’s hips.’ And Juliet collapsed on the filthy bed, and sobbed… Myfanwy sat down beside her.
‘You can’t,’ she said very certainly, ‘be a lesbian, Juliet.’
‘Why the fuck not?’ asked Juliet.
‘Because,’ said Myfanwy, ‘you’re too fat. You can’t be a fat lesbian, see, because people will just think that’s why you are one. Because you can’t get a man, you see. Lesbians don’t want lesbians like that.’
At the centre of this novel is Prys himself, crocked and helpless, sentient but speechless, sometimes aware of his predicament and at other times believing himself to be watching an arthouse film, or even writing the dialogue as it issues from the mouths of his family. These scenes are beautifully done, and the author wears lightly what is clearly a gift of wisdom and an enormous amount of research.
I was struck by what an extraordinarily accomplished piece of writing this is. From the first chapter, one can relax in the certainty that the author knows exactly what she is doing and where she is going. It’s masterful. In common with several of the books on the long list, the performance is so assured that there is nothing to suggest a fictional debut.
I basked in the glow of this book and felt privileged to have met it.