What Was Promised by Tobias Hill (Bloomsbury - March 2014)
To be a Londoner or not to be a Londoner is not really the question. It is only a matter of time before each inhabitant of this city gets absorbed by the capital’s busy pace and by its cosmopolitan way of life and yet each new resident brings questions of identity as well as precious fragments of foreign lands with them. It is a city in constant flux that transforms lives through longstanding influences as well as through chance encounters. In this sense the city holds a pledge which is maybe not quite as sensational as the American Dream but is powerful enough to keep everyone going.
This book tells the story of three very different families who, at the outset, live and work side by side in the East End of London. The year is 1948 and the city is still scarred by bombsites and by a shaky economy. Clarence and Bernadette Malcolm have left the West Indies to find a more prosperous existence. Clarence previously fought with the West Indian regiment before he settled in London where he now sells bananas in the street markets of Shoreditch. He is given the nickname Banana King and earns just enough to maintain his small family. They live next door to Solly and Dora Lazarus, a childless couple of Jewish origin who were forced to leave their native Danzig due to the war. In fact, Danzig as they know it no longer exists as the Russians have taken it over and renamed it. As a result of their move they have also had to abandon their social standing and start from scratch. No news from back home has reached them in years and they fear the worst. When Dora meets a homeless boy by chance, she is keen to adopt him even though he seems to have no memory of who his parents are. In the same tenement resides the Lockhart family, they have roots up North yet are well established in London Town. Mary and Michael and their two young daughters seem at first an average family with healthy aspirations towards a middle-class lifestyle. Michael has the gift of the gab and it seems he can improve his lot through skilful bartering but ends up mixing with shady characters. Although it seems little more than a coincidence that these three families should share a postcode, twenty and even forty years after they first make each other’s casual acquaintance, their association still has momentous repercussions and unresolved implications.
It is the art of a good storyteller to expose what seems normal as something far more complex and compelling and Hill is a master of suspense. So much so that the reader does often not even suspect that vital information has been withheld or tampered with. He even pulls off the double bluff. Let’s take Dora Lazarus: we first encounter her on page fifteen when she enters the ‘Birdcage’ saloon for an appointment with an attractive looking sailor. There is so much ambiguity in the air you could cut it with a knife but it turns out that her dealings with this young man are absolutely honourable. We are reassured that she is a highly respectable individual, but is she really?
Hill is more than just an excellent storyteller; he is primarily a poet. In fact, he was selected as one of the Poetry Book Society’s Next Generation Poets back in 2004. His passion for language has taken on many different forms. It is refreshing to come across a writer who is working successfully in a multitude of genres and is not bound to just one approach.
This is Hill’s fifth novel and like some of his previous works, the writing reveals an acute sense of place. We get close up and personal with every corner shop and alleyway around Brick Lane and Camden Town. The reader can sense the atmosphere right down to the texture of the pavement. Hill writes about London with the same streetwise precision as Dostoyevsky used to write about St Petersburg. He gives us all the vital details without sounding like a tour guide; he sounds like a true insider.
Although the novel uses multiple points of view and stretches across four decades, it manages to keep the momentum of the plot going. In the beginning the voices change in quick succession but later we get a deeper understanding of the characters’ individual thought processes. It is a challenge for many authors to write from the perspective of the opposite sex but here Hill takes the leap of imagination one step further and visualises the inner workings of a character with a completely different cultural background. On the one hand the writing is rooted in what the writer knows inside out i.e. London, and on the other he uses this as a platform and starting point to explore more daring territory.
Ultimately the scope of the book is quite remarkable; Hill comments on how we as a society interact with each other. The story explores the subtle fabric that binds families but also tears them apart. It deals with the pressures of mixed-race relationships, the implications of adultery, social mobility and the rift between social classes—Hill seems to question the validity of the jostling for status and juxtaposes it with the benefits of neighbourly solidarity.
A large section of the book is dedicated to the myth of the Fisher King and it is quite remarkable and intriguing how this fairytale is woven into the narrative, taking the story to a whole new level of understanding and offering much food for thought.
A.S. Byatt said about the author: “Hill is one of the two or three most original and interesting young novelists working in Britain today.”