Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Books - Meeting the English, by Kate Clanchy

Kate Clanchy’s 2013 novel, Meeting The English, was a random find of mine. Not necessarily an original find, as it was shortlisted for the Coast First Novel Award last year – but a random find nonetheless. I went into Foyles with a book token and picked three novels from the New Releases section, none of which I had heard of before. I briefly glanced over the blurb and first pages of each, but that was it. I like doing this, because it’s something I rarely got the chance to do during my degree, when novels are of course recommended and prescribed left right and centre. I also like doing this because, while I do own a kindle and often buy books online, I also like real paper books, and I also love bookshops, and I’m a little scared that one of these days both might die out.

So I started Meeting The English blind, and it was definitely a great discovery.

The novel, set in 1980s London, is somewhere between surreal romance and social examination, and I loved it. After the famous playwright Philip Prys suffers a stroke, the world of those around him alters, descending into a chaotic muddle of a distracted wife, an interfering ex-wife, two confused teenage children, and a terrified literary agent. Struan Robertson, a Scottish student taking on nursing in his gap year, is thrown into the midst of this chaos, and is bemused by the world he finds.

Despite being set in the 80s, this novel feels incredibly relevant, especially with the Referendum approaching. Struan’s rural Scottish background leaves him feeling confused (and overly warm) in London. The juxtaposition of Struan’s past with his current experiences allows Clanchy to play with the idea of nationality, especially when Iranian Shirin and Welsh Myfanwy are thrown into the mix. The title draws attention to something always lying somewhere beneath the surface: what it means to be Scottish, what it means to be English, perhaps what it means to be anything. This is interesting for a start, because it has always seems to me that a lot more people have a sense of what it means to be Scottish than of what it might mean to be English. I’ve come across very few novels about nationality, and even fewer about nationality within the United Kingdom. With the Referendum approaching, it seems the perfect time for a novel addressing not only Scottishness, but also Englishness, and the differences (whether actual or felt) between the two.

And yet, Meeting The English isn’t too relevant. This may seem a strange comment, but let me explain. It doesn’t for a moment push its main theme. It is primarily a story about people, about their lives, the situations they find themselves in. It’s also a story about nationality, about place, about what it means to be from somewhere, about the assumptions people make based on all this – and yet these points are never pushed to the fore. The issue is explored with brilliant subtly. No conclusions are drawn. The book simply poses questions, or perhaps not even questions so much as thoughts, themes, ideas. Novels can, in my opinion, at times get too bogged down in their themes, and become so keen to say something, that they forget to tell a story at the same time. Clanchy wonderfully avoids this, and the novel ultimately goes far beyond its central theme.

Juliet is my favourite character. Her development across the novel is marvellous. Somehow she’s a strange mixture of irritating, self-absorbed, and entirely sympathetic. Yet all the characters are well created. You only need to read the first few pages of the novel to understand how great a writer Clanchy is. Within four pages, she ensures that you know entirely what sort of a man Philip Prys is. When he suffers a stroke on page four, we already feel we know him, and dislike him, and so our pity for his state is complicated. It’s incredibly clever. Indeed, the passages written from Philip Prys half-conscious state are some of the finest in the novel.

I like that no character is without fault, and no character is without their moments of sympathy. No one is irredeemable, and everyone is somehow real, even within the sometimes surreal world of the novel. Indeed, the novel’s tone and atmosphere is one of things that most impressed me. Clanchy brilliantly mingles the surreal and the real. I like that you’re never entirely sure what’s going on. I like the series of events that unfold are unnervingly unpredictable. I can in part understand why the Observer described this novel as akin to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Rarely have I read a book so unpredictable, and yet so oddly believable all at once. The unexpected never seems implausible. I like that every now and then newsflashes alert us to the events of the world beyond the characters, placing them in space and time – yet always seeming a little distant. Everything feels both dreamlike and real. I still haven’t quite worked out how Clanchy does it, but the effect is marvellous.

In short, this is a delightful and at times delightfully strange novel, and I strongly recommend you to read it.

Greatest strength: The characters, without a doubt. Although I also loved the novel’s strangeness, and its unpredictability.

Greatest weakness: I genuinely cannot think of any. This isn’t to say it’s a perfect novel as such, but I simply can’t think of a way it could be improved.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘Aye,’ said Struan. ‘You see, what I think is, it’s about letting folk be all there. 3D. Having all their feelings. I have to let you English people have all your feelings, not just the English ones. And you, you have to let the folk in Cuik be stupid and clever, and nice and nasty as well. You have to let them feel stuff. I mean, the whole range.’

‘They can’t,’ said Jake. ‘Feel. They’re Scottish.’

Next week: Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell  

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