[Quentin is visiting his mother] He lets himself into rooms crammed with books and his mother’s work. To him, these look like glazed mud, but Naomi has built up quite following, and even exhibits in the craft galleries of Dartington and Tavistock.
His mother is wearing her usual uniform of smock, trousers,
wellington boots and a pair of glasses on the end of a long necklace of large lumpy glass beads. Quentin kisses her soft, round crumpled face. She smells of verbena soap.
‘How are you, Ma?’ Quentin asks.
‘Coffee, please,’ says Quentin, remembering too late that this will mean Nescafe.
commentary: If you want to know what England is like right now, read this book.
It’s a very specific story, about a particular family with its own problems, it has a most un-metropolitan setting, and it has at its heart a very strange and gruesome crime. But it describes life in 2017 in the most hilarious, entertaining, wince-making, and real way.
A modern family is facing divorce and job loss: they move to Devon, to save money, and this is how the mother explains it to the children:
Lottie says, ‘Sweetheart, it’s like The Railway Children.'
‘Is Daddy going to prison?’
If only, Lottie thinks. ‘No, we just don’t have much money for a bit. When we sell the house in London each of us will buy a really nice flat, I promise.’
‘Can’t you and Daddy not divorce?’
‘No, I’m sorry darling.’
They make the move and try to come terms with country life, after having been rich and very urban. They fight with each other, and try desperately to earn money. The children have the usual problems fitting in, and their mother is called in for a discussion in the headteacher’s office- all too recognizable as parents and children argue, the mothers trying to be reasonable…
…The boys’ mother, a tall and unexpectedly pretty woman in a turquoise raincoat and bright pink wellington boots.. ‘Dexter, Tiger, I’m ashamed of you guys. Say sorry right now.’There is a strong plot involving a previous inhabitant of their rented house, the local rich guy, a reclusive rockstar, and other villagers that they meet along the way.
They go back to London for visits – ‘ a Britain that is more confident, more tolerant, more civilized, more enterprising and more beautiful than the rest of the country. Even when it drives him mad… [London] is, far more than any woman, the love of his life.’
The characters are complicated and real – Quentin is hideous and vile in many ways, and no-one could not enjoy his attempts to get jobs from his past employees:
Quentin: When I came to work for you as an intern I made your coffee, fetched your dry-cleaning, covered your back and even cleaned shit off your shoes. You didn’t pay me lunch money let alone a living wage, and never once said thank you. You are the rudest person I have ever worked with. So you will understand why I say now, We have no vacancies of any kind that you might fill.And yet he is rounded, and subtly – through his interactions with his parents, as above – we find out why he might be like that. And although you have to look quite hard, he does have a few redeeming moments. No-one in the book (maybe one person…) is all good or all bad: this is one of Craig’s marvellous talents. She doesn’t tell you who to like and dislike.
More or less, each chapter changes viewpoint – we learn what is going on in the lives of a wide variety of characters. The chapters often end on a low-level cliffhanger – we move on to another person, who will, perhaps, be thinking during a journey. So we get more info about what they are doing, and then they will be thinking back to what has happened since we last saw them. Now, I am the first to complain about this kind of thing - - it often drives me mad in books, and I consider many authors to be rather cheeky in expecting us to keep up with this switching and varying timelines. But Craig is so good at it, I never once felt annoyed or confused, and it was an excellent way to tell the story and to keep our attention and interest.
Throughout there are wonderful apercus about life, about people. The long protracted illness of one character, and the fears and thoughts about death, are particularly well-done. Then there is this:
His love lacks the crucial ingredient of imaginative sympathy. If Sally had to put her finger on the single worst characteristic of everyone who has ever inflicted harm on others, it’s the inability to comprehend that other people fell pain, humiliation and loss just as intensively as you do yourself.I had to read that over several times, it seemed so perfect and so accurate.
I love Amanda Craig (her book A Vicious Circle is on the blog here), and I think she is a great, great writer, maybe a genius. While she has plenty of sensible fans like me, I do not understand why she does not get every literary prize going. Could it be because she is funny? Or even, because she is a woman? I am not Jonathan Frantzen’s biggest fan, but he is generally agreed to be a great chronicler of American life, a writer of huge stature and status. But he is not better than Amanda Craig, with her long series of novels presenting recent life. And she isn’t the only writer I feel is very undervalued – look at Lissa Evans, Patricia Ferguson, Marina Endicott, and half the women writers featured on this blog.
The sculptor is Bashka Paeff, from the Smithsonian’s collection of photographs of American artists. Naomi in the book is a potter rather than a sculptor, but the picture seemed right. I do love a smock: see this entry for Arnold Bennett and Calvin & Hobbes and their takes on smocks. And this Patricia Wentworth book featured artsy crafty smocks too - the second picture featured here, of artist Bertha Wegmann from the Royal Library of Denmark, was first discovered for that entry.
The wearer of the turquoise coat is Amal Alamuddin, who married George Clooney.