In a new regular feature, which takes a look at the best books that you may have unwittingly passed by, Robyn Carr from our Liverpool One bookshop introduces Meeting The English by Kate Clanchy…
With novels, words fills the page as if they’re poured in, hitting all sides and promising a sturdy inflation of the characters that will slowly become a part of lives. But poetry, with its loose ends and weird imagery, creates something complete in as much as a few lines. While prose fills the page, poetry commands it. And so it is within this poet’s novel, where her swelling tale catches the light, like poems do, and tears through a single page with sparks of imagery that reveals the characters in a single line. There is a charge in choosing the right sentences, and as the poets’s business, Kate Clanchy brings her hugely entertaining debut novel solidly to life. Meeting the English is compulsively readable yet starred with poetic observation.
Set in the hottest summer Britain has seen, acclaimed playwright Phillip Prys, collapses mid-bathroom routine into a paralysing stroke, giving birth to a comic and tender unwinding of a crumbling middle-class family. The sixty-two year old newly-wed “fell to the ground and jerked as if he were being shaken by an invisible policeman.” Clanchy’s choice of metaphor and imagery often seem as cartoonish as the characters themselves, however, picking at the ordinary moments of life she reveals to us the flecks of the absurd underneath. Now trapped in his lonely and scrambled mind, the literary giant spends his wakeful hours observing his family going about their separate lives trying to remember his slim glossy wife and wondering when the frumpier lady around the house plans to kill him. It’s a colourful portrait of a circa-1989 literary stars after-life; a time where novelists were once glorious.
Tormenting a confused Philip is the ex-wife, Myfanwy, ceaseless mother of his two children. An old RADA student and once sparkly-eyed main-parter, the stage days now fully gone since drink and age has shrivelled her performance, she is keenly awaiting Phillip’s death for no other reason than the financial reward that will soothe the property-development career gone sour; “The most you can do was draw a line in the sand, and she’ll walk around it.” Any murderous potential Phillip may anticipate remains unrealised, save for the killing off of daughter Juliet’s self-esteem; the second half of the novel’s most comic duo – too fat for any decent roles and too thick to have ever won the affections of Phillip. Wilful and sassy, Juliet provides the best lines; “I’d be anorexic if i could manage it.” She’s read about the cutting thing in Cosmopolitan but decidedly owns arms too fat for the job – “like slicing a French Fancy for the jam.” Clanchy’s sharply comic images are twisted with a darkness that catches you out, like a cruel joke at which you know you shouldn’t be laughing.
Myfanwy, determined to not spend the children’s trust funds on proper care for Phillip, employs the small town Scottish Struan to change Phillip’s incontinence pads for twenty pounds a week. Cuik school’s tallest and brightest seventeen-year-old, already armed with life’s sorrows – an orphan to his Gran, travels down for his gap-year London experience; not the literary bohemia his English teacher imagined for him but more its sagging hangover.
Throughout the novel a friendship forms between Struan and Phillip’s new wife, Shirin. The petite twenty-six-year-old Iranian is the latest and last of many beautiful women and dutifully attends to him. Harbouring a small guilt for not helping out with the care himself is Jake, Phillip and Myfanwy’s eldest child. A rising stage star-cum-coke addict who stirs the plot into a mystery of stolen money and mistaken identity. He turns up in various places in the novel, usually at night and careful not to run into his mother who believes he’s on a stage in Edinburgh when actually he’s sleeping with Celia, an anorexic friend of Juliet’s, over on the other side of Hampstead. Celia introduces Juliet to amphetamines, because “like going to the comp or losing your virginity, you just had to be thin to pull it off.”
Juliet’s grown-up act is hilarious and makes her the most likable character in the novel. Told she is “so plain” by her mother, the carelessly treated teenager makes a drastic attempt to be noticed, yet she is detached and independent – letting her mother’s insults falls off her like the extra weight, as she confidently plans her future. A charming friendship builds between Juliet and Struan once she decides, with almost military precision, that she does not fancy him.
The rest of the family’s prissy idleness tests Straun’s small town principles and the ever-increasing clashes between Struan and Jake come head on in a pub one night, culminating in a drunken slap. Suffering under the rising temperatures and a set-up of petty-theft accusations, Struan is also falling deeply in love with Shirin. Whilst befriending Phillip through his life’s final act he tries to find a balance between his grounded morals and throbbing body.
And upon the breezy heaths of Hampstead does Struan find his daily escape. Regularly joined by Philip’s literary agent Giles, who finds late blooming love with a life-guard called Bill.
Now full of the enthusiasm of life’s second chances, as his lover lays in the hospital dying of “the bleeding obvious” the spiritual Bill suggests dipping Phillip’s body into the cool water and a few moments each day he is taken out of his baking misery. Struan, driven by his old-soul kindness, fulfills a real purpose in defiance of the family quarrels stacked and pushing against him.
Clanchy delivers this playful family tale, its witty dialogue and tender observations with the heat waves and headlines of 1989; the sweltering summer that changes all their lives. She achieves a level of poignancy without having to wheedle us into it- because she tells it light and often in jest. Hard-headed yet soulful, this is the work of a skilful poet. And the result, for me, is I’ll never bite into a French fancy again without flinching at the parting flesh of a plump teenage arm.
Robyn Carr, for Waterstones.com/blog