Saturday, December 14, 2013

If This is Home by Stuart Evers

Tried to avoid overt spoilers, though some of the key plot is given away on the cover of the hardback anyway, but its impossible to review without giving some of it away. 

His first novel, "If this is home", follows Stuart Evers well received short story collection "Ten Stories About Smoking". Beginning in an enigmatic, intrigueing Las Vegas where "Josef Novak", is helping his friend O'Neill close a property deal, the shimmering unreality of "Valhalla" - the complex they are trying to sell units in to rich businessmen - is a facade which begins to unravel as Joe's past begins to intrude back into his life. For the last ten years or more he has lived in New York, his identity a fake one, O'Neill the friend he made shortly after arriving for got drunk with him and helped him out with his new life. There's a book in his possession where every aspect of Joe's life is mapped out; a fiction - a necessary one because Joe Novak has been successfully forgetting his past.

In Vegas, as he gets more and more distant from the job he has to do - and more appalled by the behaviour of the men who they are trying to please in this glorified Time Share scheme - the past begins to intrude. For Joe came to New York from England, specifically Wilmslow in the North West, as a teenager running away from a tragedy that took place in 1990, involving his girlfriend Bethany - that year's carnival queen. As the present breaks apart and he is reminded of the violence that led him to leave the UK, he turns up again in the North West, booking in at a provincial pub-hotel and begins to slowly track his way back through half memories of a life that he had deliberately hid away for over a decade. Flitting between memories of that year, with Bethany getting ready to be a reluctant carnival queen (she prefers to wear a Big Black t-shirt and Dr. Marten boots, but agrees for her father's sake), and memories of his arrival in New York, he sits in his hotel halfway between his new identity and his old one - Mark Wilkinson.

Evers is an engaging writer, from the baroquely fantastic Vegas chimera, to the more down-to-earth recolllections of a dreary but nonetheless searching teenage life in a provincial English town, he deftly moves between worlds. There's a slightly fantastical nature, even to his more mundane recollections, as Bethany's memory is a  palpable one to Mark, edging him ever closer to unravel the memories of what happened that terrible day. In some ways, Evers successfully joins two common tropes of contemporary British fiction: the lost anti-hero, a post-adolescent who is unable to actively change the world as it happens to him - caught in his own neuroses; and on the other hand the novel of secrets withheld - like "The Gathering" or "Atonement", held back from the reader through the author's sleight of hand. In some ways the novel is the inevitable debut - returning to adolescence through the fog of memory; but unable to process it. For Wilkinson, like the hero of the New York set Netherland, is adrift, awaiting for something to be resolved but not quite knowing what it might be.

Its interesting how conventional the novel is in some ways. The language is one of filtered-memory, the Paul Morley style Sunday supplement reminisce of dank Northern towns at one remove; the bad pub food; the low expectations of working class youth. Mark was a dreamer because he had to be: both him and Bethany had broken homes; but the women it was who were missing, not the men; and this pain of divorce and separation - of adolescence in a not-so-distant world, recalls David Mitchell's Black Swan Green for instance. In some ways the Vegas chapter at the start feels like a tacked on short story - it has a different timbre to the rest of the novel; and the move from NYC to Vegas creates a complexity of location which feels a little contrived. New York is the place where you go for your dreams - as Bethany and Mark had planned - but when those dreams couldn't come true, what then? Maybe the fake facades of Vegas. In many ways, much of this is a device. It covers similar ground to Gwendoline Riley's recent "Opposed Positions" but has a more mechanistic approach to its material; here its a life remembered rather than a life lived. I felt there wasn't enough made of the genuniely interesting decision to give a character two lives - seen through Mark/Joe's own perspective we never get the sense that either is particularly real. The denouement when it comes is less about surprising us but lining up the past again so it makes sense. We are all touched by our inactions as well as our actions.

Its an enjoyable read, carefully structured, and with some of the pace of a psychological thriller like Tana French or Kate Atkinson; yet its also a much more homely book: something of the suburban provincial life (Evers is from Macclesfield) that many non-urban British writers share. In this, the prose doesn't really find a way out from the cliches - it almost denies the documentary impulse that would bring this particular past more to life. For Wilkinson had no love for his hometown - and in returning the only conclusion is a very contemporary one: that dreams are just that, dreams. "If this is home" is an appropriate title - for Wilkinson is himself a chimera abroad, but in Wilmslow, he's a missing man. Set, deliberately, I think, just before the internet it relies on that pre-internet world where its easy to disappear. Its not in any way a comforting book, but he deals with his dark material with a lightness of touch that is similar to, say Steven Hall.

For a novel that has different places and different identities it settles for far too much of its length into the most comfortable of both: the provincial past, and one wonders about the deux ex machina that got us here? Was it really necessary? At the end, even though there's a potential love interest in the enigmatic Ferne (all the female characters are somewhat enigmatic), there's a sense of containment that would seem to make more sense in a short story, but perhaps lacks the necessary bravery one wants from a novel.  I doubt most contemporary readers will be disappointed, yet like Zadie Smith's "The Autograph Man", the emotionally-limited male lacks possibilities, whether in an exotic or mundane location. In her essay comparing "Remainder" and "Neverwhere" as two sides for the contemporary novelist, I'd say that Evers book fits bang in the middle, showing how awkward that dichotomy is to sustain.

There's an interesting piece on his blog on the role of music in writing his work - with a soundtrack to the novel itself.

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