Meeting the English by Kate Clanchy (Picador – May, 2013)
It is 1989, Struan Robertson, a seventeen-year-old living with his gran in a small Scottish town, is persuaded by his English teacher to answer the following ad in the London Review of Books:
Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair. Own room in Hampstead, all found, exciting cultural milieu. Modest wage. Ideal ‘gap year’ opportunity. Apply Prys Box 4224XXC.
The literary giant in question is Phillip Prys, a playwright whose seminal work, The Pit and Its Men, Struan has studied at school. Struan is a brilliant student, aiming for dentistry at Aberdeen University, but the ‘life experience’ category on his application is limited to his part-time work in an old folks’ home in Cuik. He defers his dental ambitions and departs for the foreign city with some trepidation, ‘no one Struan knew had ever come back from London.’
Prys has suffered a massive stroke and is unable to move or communicate. His silent presence (a lovely irony for a book about a ‘literary giant’) lurks at the heart of the novel. Apart from tending to Prys’s physical needs Struan must also negotiate Prys’s dysfunctional family situation; including his current wife, a beautiful young Iranian artist named Shirin; a former wife, the ubiquitous Myfanwy who does not actually live in the house but is officiously taking care of it for the sake of her and Prys’s children; his daughter Juliet, an opinionated, chubby, underachieving teenager; and his son Jake, away at Oxford. Struan finds the English to be a strange and inexplicable bunch and Prys’s family, particularly lacking in familial warmth—especially to a boy who has lost both of his parents. Of course Prys’s family’s lack of compassion has great deal to do with the way he treated them in health and is very much his just desserts, but Struan still comprehends more in his expectation of family than their general bickering over his money—as though he were already dead.
Clanchy’s characters are delightfully quirky and memorable, from the enigmatic Shirin to the larger-than-life Myfanwy. She writes her characters with empathy though. Struan himself is a wise and compassionate soul trapped in the gawky, inarticulate body of a teenaged boy. He must find his voice and what better place to do it than the household of a great writer.
Clanchy’s 1989 is full of evocative details—the fashions, the preoccupations, the catchphrases, the oppressively warm weather:
In 1989, CVs were in the air. All of a sudden, everyone had one and was sending it somewhere, by fax.
She satirises her setting with melodramatic over-statement, which put me in mind of Evelyn Waugh’s classic lists:
In 1989, there were just crazy amounts of news: news from all quarters of both hemispheres of the globe; news of the very meatiest, most ideological, melodramatic sort—the Exxon Valdez was a popped pimple to most of it.
The humour is founded in rhythm and repetition, Clanchy riffs on words like a stand-up comedian and this is a very funny book. Though she is a poet-turned-novelist, her poetic prose is not overwrought and it doesn’t weigh the narrative down. Her flights of lyricism are whimsical and charming:
Myfanwy was in the attic, clearing out. To Myfanwy the hoover, to Myfanwy the mop, the duster, the black bag! Well, what else? Myfanwy’s practicality had kept brick mortared to brick since the day she made Philip buy this house, a genteel wreck, in 1967.
Clanchy’s renderings of Prys’s consciousness are particularly deft; this is where her expertise as a poet is clearly apparent. Prys is not, as you might expect, trapped in some ‘locked-in’ state, raging at fate and the ingratitude of his family. He finds himself in a twilight world, happily recreating his best-known plays in his head, concerned only with physical discomfort and the nagging (possibly justified) fear that Myfanwy might smother him with a pillow. Clanchy continues to subvert expectations throughout the novel.
Meeting the English is a wonderfully realised combination of wit and charm with a slightly old-fashioned, nostalgic air. And it must be said that the English are an odd lot…