When aspiring novelist Christopher Flinders drops out of university to write his masterpiece (in between shifts as a fish delivery man and builder’s mate), his family is sceptical.
But when he is taken up by the London editor Owen Goddard and his charming wife Diana it seems success is just around the corner. Christopher’s life has so far been rather short of charm – growing up in an unlovely suburb, with unambitious parents and a semi-vagrant brother – and he is captivated by his generous and cultured mentors.Amazon.co.uk
This is only my second Clare Chambers novel, after Small Pleasures which I had loved when it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I imagine that, making the most of the publicity created by such a listing, the decision was made to re-publish this ten-plus year old predecessor.
And it is apparent that Chambers is drawn to a certain theme: her characters here, as in Small Pleasures, fall in love with people they probably shouldn’t, relationships which conflict with their other personal and or professional ties. In Small Pleasures, Jean Swinney fell for the husband of a woman she was writing a newspaper article on; here, Christoper Flinders falls for the wife of the man whom he wants to publish his novel. Will the emotional depth and authenticity of that novel be repeated here?
The novel opens in a contemporary world in which Christopher is living a somewhat secluded life in a rural Yorkshire farmhouse – served by a single road and prone to infrequent but severe floods. He has been offered a voluntary redundancy from his job at the Inland Revenue, his parents have died, his brother is somewhat estranged, his marriage has broken down. He does seem a rather resilient fellow, taking all these vicissitudes in his strides – although some of them were some distance in the past, to be fair – and fills his days with walking, riding, fishing and entertaining his ex-wife with whom he has managed to maintain a close friendship.
Somewhat lazily, the plot drifts for a few chapters as Chambers introduces us to Christopher’s relationship with Gerald, his brother, and his ex-wife. It is a meandering read at this point, but this was a novel where I liked these secondary characters more than the main one. Gerald, possibly with some form of learning difficulty, is semi-vagrant and semi-squatting in their father’s house after his death and delaying the inevitable sale of the property was a delight. And Carol, the ex-wife, was wonderfully self-obsessed – having left Christopher following an affair and marrying her lover, she proceeds to ask whether Christopher would donate sperm for her.
“We don’t have to have sex, if that’s what’s bothering you. You can jerk off into a beaker. That’s no problem”
“You make it sound so tempting.”
Eventually we are introduced to Alex Canning, investigating the life of Owen Goddard, the editor of the title, with whom Christopher was acquainted twenty years previously when he was writing his novel after quitting university. And whose wife, Diana, he fell in love with.
Chambers chose to use a particular device here – one which, thankfully, she rejected for Small Pleasures. Flinders had written out in longhand the events of his entanglement with the Goddards. 150 pages of it. Which he had kept for over a decade in his loft. And which he delivers to Canning; and which Chambers delivers to us. Lock, stock and barrel. Only once it is complete do we return to the present day to discover the aftermath of the love affair and of the issues raised with Gerald and Carol.
What didn’t work for me, in terms of plotting, was the management of these two strands. Flinders’ account of his love affair was rather peremptory and lacked the depth of emotion or worldbuilding that I had loved in Small Pleasures. And Flinders was a rather unlikeable narrator in this second section: naive at best in his introduction of literary London society in which he is wholly at sea, and in his assumption that visiting Diana with whom he readily accepted he had come to love was unproblematic:
The fact that I was falling in love with the wife of my mentor and friend, a man who had gone out of his way to help me, and shown me nothing but kindness, didn’t trouble my conscience at all.
His decision not to act on his feelings was lauded (by himself) as “the highest compliment”. But a compliment that evaporated extraordinarily quickly in the narrative. This was so different to the characters of Small Pleasures, so desperate not to act in a way which was “shabby” to one another and possibly a reflection of the time period – my recollection of the 1980s was that is lauded self-interest above self-sacrifice, perhaps.
In fact, the speed and pace of his falling in love, the development of the affair, the inevitable resolution and emotional trauma resultant on it was rather startling. These seismic events were dispatched rather quickly, and flatly and emotionlessly with none of the passion and the immediacy of feeling that I had enjoyed in Small Pleasures. This is, I suppose, consistent with the form here, being – a what? report? memoir? first draft of an autobiography? cathartic healing process? – a manuscript written in hindsight and from a distance, but it did distance me as a reader. There was none of the gorgeous evocative depiction of the time period – and perhaps 1985 inherently held less charm and appeal than the 1950s that still remembered the Blitz – nor as much social satire in this novel.
There was a rather sudden twist in the final part which I won’t dwell on or give any details about, but it was not quite as well handled as I would have liked – it felt that Chambers was shoe-horning in a happy ending without quite laying enough of a foundation. It became… insecure, even if I was ultimately glad that the characters did obtain their happy ending.
What I did love in the final part was the depiction of one memorable evening in Yorkshire when, despite being such a loner, Christopher is visited and is forced to house not only Gerald who arrives on a rain-sodden evening but also Carol who has rowed with her husband, and Alex Canning who, heavily pregnant, has arrived to collect the 150 page manuscript before being trapped by floodwaters over the ford as the telephone lines go down and mobile reception is non-existent. The evening of music, Trivial Pursuits, the weather forecast, communal cooking, bickering and reconciliation was lovely.
The novel suffers, I think in a split focus: is this the novel about the love between Christopher and Diana, or is it a novel about the Flinders family. In fact, Chambers is exquisite at those strained but still loving family relationships both here and in Small Pleasures – Jean Swinney and her mother were a wonderfully realised pair, as were Christopher and both Gerald and Carol.
It is perhaps unfair to compare the two novels so much – and re-reading this review I really have! – but they do explore very similar emotional landscapes that it feels inevitable. It was certainly not a bad book at all and I did enjoy reading it. It has, however, left me willing to read another Chambers if I come across one, not desperate to catch up on her back catalogue.
What I Liked
- The secondary characters, Gerald and Carol, and Christopher’s relationships with them – some of the dialogue between them was wonderfully judged!
- The setting in a literary world.
- The flooded-in communal dinner in Part Three.
What Could Have Been Different
- The plotting and pacing of the first part was very meandering and could have been tighter.
- The use of the manuscript to narrate the love affair did not, to my mind, work as well as it could have!
- The twist in the final part could have been more … credible and convincing.