Boys and Girls by Joseph Connolly (Quercus – April 2014)
For his last three novels, including the most recent England’s Lane, Joseph Connolly has been inhabiting the 1940s and 50s. Now, with Boys and Girls, Connolly returns to the modern day with a masterful dark comedy about marriage, escape, and friendship.
Boys and Girls tells of Susan, a self-labelled ‘sensualist’, who suddenly announces to her husband, the archetypal incompetent male, that she wants to take a new husband. But here’s the comic rub – the second husband will be as well as, not instead of, her current one. The candidate for polygamy, eminent publishing magnate Black, starts out as a tempting proposition – a man of means, he knows the headwaiters at all the best restaurants by name. But soon it becomes clear he is deaf and crumbling, with a peculiar penchant for wearing corsets and making frequent visits to the lavatory. Susan does not seem to notice this, but her daughter, 15-year old Amanda, certainly does, and despairs at the fresh indignities her parents are subjecting her to.
From this initial set-up, Connolly’s novel not surprisingly derives much humour and merriment – there is a lot of cross-purposes humour (particularly drawn from the decrepit Black, with his malfunctioning hearing aid) and delicious awkwardness as the new ‘marriage’ is set up. But the humour is not just situational. Connolly uses his considerable skill as a ventriloquist to take readers into the minds of his characters, whether that’s old codger Black, or the very modern self-obsessed teen Amanda. Not for Connolly the shackles of sticking to one point of view per sentence, or even being bound by personal pronouns – he leaps from head to head like some kind of omniscient literary nit. (Which I mean in the nicest possible way.)
The joy of Connolly’s novels is not just the humour. He creates a real tenderness in his characters. I was genuinely moved by the friendship that develops between the two husbands, and the complete honesty with which they communicate. Superficially, Connolly’s theory in this novel appears to be that, ultimately, men and women will always be at their most unguarded when they are dealing with their own gender, leaving aside the games of courting they engage in with the other sex. More profoundly, almost existentially, he is revealing how all of us live in bad faith from time to time, forcing ourselves into roles rather than living authentically in the moment. It is only when Black disrobes from his corset that we know he is finally free to be himself.
Reading Connolly’s books over the years, I had always thought of him as PG Wodehouse with a darker edge. Boys and Girls proves even that accolade is unworthy, because it misses the sheer originality and technical experimentation of his work. Looking back at his debut, Poor Souls, written some twenty years ago, that was bitingly funny and fast-paced, with very dark secret lives of his characters (and for those reasons, still makes a fun read). Now, though, having devoted part of his career to more avowedly ‘serious’ books, Connolly has found an almost perfect blend of weight and levity. In one sentence, I am sniggering at a psychiatrist couch funny. By the next, I am hit by the pathos of his character’s confessions to the shrink. It is this wedding of the comic and profound, as well as the peculiar bigamous marriage of its characters, that makes Boys and Girls one of Connolly’s finest works.