You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘novel’ tag.

I first read John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down about a decade ago, in one of the guest rooms of a posh hotel near Salisbury. It was a slim volume, dated to 1942, the year of first publication, and I suspect it had sat on the shelf unread for many of those years.

I’d never heard of the book, having got no further into Steinbeck than seeing the movie versions of Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men. Those opening lines, though, did the job that all opening lines are supposed to do, and hooked me from the beginning. It’s the directness, and the simplicity I think, that compels:

 

‘By ten forty-five it was all over. The town was occupied, the defenders defeated, and the war finished.’

 

The story stayed in my mind for years, though I forgot the title, until, that is, I was recently given a copy of the Penguin The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. A second read proved to be as enthralling as the first had been, but a lot of reading, and a lot of thinking about the short story form had passed under my bridge by then.

The story is as simple as the telling, and, considering the date of publication, so, perhaps, is the intention behind the book. The un-named town, in the un-named country, experiences occupation by a foreign invader, and far from being ‘over’, the story is only just beginning. Betrayed by a prominent businessman, the local Mayor and his entourage, along with a few named locals are put through the trials that Americans already knew were being suffered on Continental Europe. Similar, in some ways to Cavalcanti’s Went The Day Well – based on a Graham Greene short story – or the later SS GB and The Eagle Has Landed, it’s a story that can be seen as part of a genre stretching back into the nineteenth century and The Battle of Dorking and beyond. These are stories that warn not only of the new ways that wars might be fought, but of the consequences that will follow from defeat. Steinbeck’s tale though is not merely a warning to those at risk of invasion, but more specifically than in similar stories, to those who are doing the invading.

While the Mayor’s party suffers suppression, execution, forced labour and starvation, his invaders too suffer. The fight they think is ‘all over’ has only just begun. Resistance builds slowly, and they learn that chopping off the head of a ‘free’ people, increases, rather than ends it. They learn too, that what they have been told about being ‘victors’ is lies, and the truth of their ultimate defeat sinks in slowly and surely as the story unfolds. Its ending has the Doctor, who has acted as a sort of commentator throughout, and who is about to be executed, saying ‘the debt will be paid’. He is answering the Mayor’s quoting of Socrates’ reported last words, which were that a debt was owed to the God Asclepius. It is a promise that we know will be kept. (Mind you, it didn’t work after 1066). Steinbeck was sending a message to the Germans as well as warning his fellow Americans.

What struck me on this second reading was how like a short story, rather than a novel, it is. The collection’s introduction refers to it as a ‘novelette’, another of those vague terms like ‘novella’, that reveals a doubt rather than expresses a certainty. At ninety pages it seems too long to be a short story, but I ‘perused it in an hour or two’, which Poe said was the hallmark of the short story. There have been much shorter stories, and I’m thinking of D.H.Lawrence ones, that I have felt were more like novels even though they are in his Collected Short Stories. But wordage is not the key. Steinbeck’s tale has that directness, and drive, the focus, and unity that we associate with short stories. There are sub-plots and minor characters, but they are bound closely to the main story, and linked to the main characters so tightly that we never experience the diffusion or the breadth of vision that the novel demands. The town and its hinterland are never a world in which the characters can move in different directions, but always remain the pool of light thrown by a spotlight and around which the rest of the world stays in deepest shadow. The story runs like a tank, along its own tracks, laid down before it. Its ending too has the quality of a short story ending. There is no tying up of loose ends, nor the telling of what happened to other characters, but only the Doctor’s grim quotation as he and the Mayor prepare for their fate.

Definitions are often impossible – try ‘mug’ and ‘cup’ and I guarantee that whatever you come up with you’ll still eventually find a clear example of ‘the other’ that exactly fits it! But they are useful attempts to know what it is we think we are doing when we make whatever it is we are trying to define. My definition of the short story evolves as I read, and write, more of them. Currently it has more to do with how they work, than what they say: ‘a story that gives context to its own ending, enabling us to recognise in that ending a future, present or past state of being’ might be close to it! But Poe’s hour or two of perusal hasn’t gone away.

There are more essays on short stories and their writers in Love and Nothing Else.

Advertisements

I wrote on this blog a little while ago about a theatrical adaptation of Great Expectations – by Charles Dickens (as if there were….). I thought it would be good to venture at reading the original novel. I can’t remember having read it before, and having by now read it, am sure that I would not have forgotten. I have seen various TV versions over the decades though, and in a sense could say that ‘I know the story’.

Watching the novel played out on stage with ‘real’ actors – being shown, rather than told the story – might be thought to have brought it alive, and indeed that was a sort of unconscious assumption that I made during the watching. Within a couple of chapters of reading though, I became aware, firstly, that Dickens’ own description of the marshes on which the story opens were far more vibrant in my imagination than the equivalent had been on stage – and that is not to criticise the staging.

In fact, as the told story unfolded I began to realise that it was Dickens’ words that were bringing the whole story alive in a way that its being shown could not. Neither lighting nor shadows, props nor set, costumes nor passages of direct speech taken, commendably word for word – if memory allows sufficient evidence of that – from the text, let alone ‘real’ actors, had brought the story to life quite so viscerally as did those words, of narrative, and speech and thought that Dickens gives us, one at a time and in order in the novel.

Words, of course, exist only in our minds, and not exactly, I’m sure, in each of our minds as they do in each other’s. Even within that limitation though, what Dickens meant by, and felt about the words he chose has a resonance with what those words mean and feel to us that trumps that of the observed parodies of reality that we see on stage. That resonance is expressed in and by our imaginations. We are not invited to imagine what we are shown, but only what we are told.  What we are shown can only be observed and analysed, well or badly. Imagination is something uniquely of our own, evoked by words that are themselves the nearest possible translations of the imaginations of their authors.

What Dickens also does , and which the theatre was perhaps less adept at doing, is telling a story about ourselves. In particular he does this at moments when Pip, his narrator, suddenly cuts through what he is telling us about himself, to what he might be saying about us. There is one especially potent example of this in Great Expectations, and I initially intended to quote it – to show how clever I am – but have decided to leave it for you to discover, and thus show how clever Dickens was.

Went to Keswick yesterday afternoon. Saw Great Expectations.  Tilted Wig & Malvern Theatre know their Dickens, and how to do it.

Dickens knew how to make stiff-upper lipped moustachioed and bearded men in starched collars and cumberbunds cry. He made them weep bucketloads, over Little Nell, over Oliver Twist, over relatives who died too young, wives who were the wrong woman, lovers who went unrecognised for too long. He knew how to make young women faint in their crinolines and tight corsets. He even set fire to his stage once, but not like this.

It’s only on for three days more – the play – if you can get there, clear high water, risk tides, don’t wait for time. Meet Magwitch on the marshes. No-one does melodrama like Dickens does. There’s even a reference, like a whiff of smoke, to the Blacking Factory – no guys, it wasn’t missed!

Nothing to fault, but one thing to say, don’t go for a quiet relaxing afternoon – go ‘cos you’re up for going through a wringer, and will be wrung out, exhausted, drained, the way Dickens wanted you to be. Bravo. Encore.

The lighting was spot on (no floods over the marshes). The costumes were clever. The switches, of character and set, swift and neat. The climbing-frame of a set boxed the players in, and opened the story out. Narrative, some say, kills an acted story dead, but don’t believe it, stories a plenty were told in this, and as it should have been. Loved it. Dickens loved a play. He would have loved this, I think.

Re-reading Dune by Frank Herbert reminded me that I also have his 1972 novel, Soul Catcher.

Memory tells me that when this was published it was greeted as if it were the first serious novel that this writer had produced; a reflection not so much on Herbert himself as on the sci-fi genre in general.

At first glance Soul Catcher might seem a world, a universe even, away from the Dune epic. It is set in Herbert’s own time, and on his own continent. It is neither futuristic nor historical, and reading it again, only the mobile technology of the last couple of decades has dated it. What could the story of an American Indian and the son of a State Department official have in common with that of a Messianic leader of the imaginary Fremen?

More than you might expect, would be the answer, for that Indian has been touched by the Gods; has become Soul Catcher. His mission is to kidnap an ‘innocent’ and to ritually slaughter it ‘An innocent for all our innocents.’ Like Paul Muad’Dib, Katsuk will find himself driven by, and caught in an unfolding prophecy from the deep past.

The magic begins early in the story as the thirteen year old white boy, David, wakes and sees the hunting knife that his father has given him to take to the camp from which he will be kidnapped: ‘His father’s words had put magic in the knife’.

Not only magic and prophecy connect the two books, but also the wilderness. Soul Catcher’s is not the arid desert of Arrakis though, but the forests and mountains of the American far north-west. Through these woods Katsuk will lead his victim, so confident in his own myth that at one point he allows them to remain out in the open while a spotter plane flies above.

There’s a curious twist though, in the comparison, for whereas Paul Maud’Dib was not a true Fremen, yet took to their skills and mindset instinctively, Katsuk really is an Indian, but discovers that he has not the physique, nor the true outlook to survive in the wilderness of his tribe’s heritage. As their journey progresses, it is he, and not the boy, who succumbs to the rigours of the outdoors. Katsuk remains Charles Hobuhet, his name as a ‘Good Indian’ and part of the Hoquat (white) world. As the story reaches its climax, David is acting to save his executioner. Also unlike Paul, Katsuk finds that he does not have the support of that tribe, in what they see as a crime that will reflect badly on them all, though their fear of the mythology prevents them from acting to stop him.

These parallels of content, if that’s what they are, can be matched by similarities of form, for Herbert uses the technique of inserting snippets of official documents, eyewitness accounts, reports, and Katsuk’s own ‘kidnap messages’ to authenticate the story. These recall those chapter head-pieces and appendices of Dune, ostensibly from histories and sayings of its Messianic leader. The practice, as in the epic, is continued throughout the story.

There is also an echo of the Bene Gesserit training, in the way that both David, and his captor, begin to develop a sense of the hidden meanings in each other’s words, the hidden truths, the hidden untruths.

Herbert’s interests appear to have remained the same: ecological, political, and religious. In both books it is the tension between the individual and forces greater than himself that is played out – man and environment, man versus organisation, man as the tool of prophecy and belief. The difference is that Soul Catcher is played out in our times, and in our environment. Soul Catcher could be the oddball we meet next time we go for a picnic in the woods:

            I haven’t read these two novels in such close proximity before, which has perhaps thrown the comparison into sharper relief. I found Soul Catcher to be, not Dune ‘lite’, but rather Dune compressed. Perhaps this is because in the sci-fi world Herbert had to provide the words for the backdrop as well as the foreground, whereas in the contemporary tale the backdrop to the story is part of the backdrop to our real lives.

I made a mistake a couple of days ago. I opened an old copy of Dune to find a paragraph or two I could use with a Creative Writing class.

I wouldn’t have dreamed of reading it again. In my day it was three volumes long, but I know it’s more like double that now, and I wasn’t keen to take on even the three for a second time. It wasn’t because I didn’t like it. As a piece of fiction, I rank it with Lord of the Rings, and for similar reasons.

As with Tolkien’s novel, Dune creates an entire, and entirely convincing world. That eponymous planet stands on a par with Middle Earth. Arguably it stands higher, for Middle Earth, to my mind, is a surrogate England, whereas Dune sits in a complete surrogate universe. Both stories too, carry an examination: Tolkien’s of Hereditary Monarchy as the panacea to all ills, Frank Herbert’s to something more subtle, more powerful, and more frightening, for Herbert’s Muad’ Dib, I think, has more in common with Sauron, than he does with Aragorn.

The mistake, of course, led me to seduction by the power of this powerful story, and before I sat down to record this posting, I found myself reading the first 18 pages of my 1979 paperback edition – to the end of the section where Paul survives the gom jabbar. The question now is, do I read on beyond, not merely those pages, but the three volumes of my old edition?

Dune has a lot to say to us in 2018, perhaps more than Tolkien had to say when Lord of the Rings was first published, and, for that matter, more than when it was broadcast as a Radio drama, and then again released as Peter Jackson’s film. For in all its versions Lord of the Rings is a reflective, nostalgic and largely backward looking book. Even the internationalised film version, with its modern, self-doubting Aragorn – such a contrast to Tolkien’s original, who knows exactly who is he, and where he is going and has been plotting his route for centuries, waiting for his moment – is about the restoration of something that has existed, rather than the creation of something new.

Maud’ Dib, by contrast, even though he is bringing to fruition a prophecy – planted across this fictional universe in the ancient ‘missionaria protectiva’ by the Bene Gesserit sisterhood – he is creating a genuinely new world. That world is the result and embodiment of an idea that is expressed in a single word, early on in the novel. That word is ‘Jihad’.

The word comes near to the end of the first book in that first volume, as Paul Atreides comes to the knowledge that he is the Kwisatz Hederach foretold by his mother’s Bene Gesserit sisterhood. More than that, he sees that he will be known by the wild, tribal Fremen of Dune as their Maud’Dib, ‘The One Who Points The Way’. That way will lead to a renewal of the human race, which Paul describes to himself, and to us: ‘to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes’. This will happen in  ‘the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path.’

Frank Herbert’s vision, in the nineteen seventies trilogy at least – and I have no idea of what followed in later volumes – was not of a restored and benign British-style monarchy, but of a messianic theocracy. Interestingly, there is no group of characters within his story that is reminiscent of Tolkien’s Hobbits. Herbert is not interested in the people on whom Jihad is imposed, only in those who will impose it and those whose dictatorships they overthrow to do so. It is a terrifying rather than a reassuring vision, and one that seems more  rather than less potent forty years after I first read it. Two quotations apparently from Herbert, cited on Wikipedia, suggest my reaction to the novel is not wholly fanciful.

 “Author Frank Herbert said in 1979, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgement, and your own mistakes.” He wrote in 1985, “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.”

I’ve been re-reading The Shooting Party, by Isabel Colegate. It’s one of my favourite novels and I’ve read it several times, but this time I was reading with a particular purpose in mind. For the next ten weeks I shall be using this novel as one of the texts to draw on for examples of writing techniques for the Creative Writing course I’m leading at Carlisle’s Phil and Lit, and looking for those examples requires a close focus on the text.

What surprised me was that despite having read the book before, there was so much detail that I had not consciously registered, or at least retained in the memory.

Something else, though, of more general interest came out, and that related to the background ideas that Colegate presents us with about what life is and how we might think it should be conducted. Now this novel was written, or at least published, in the early nineteen eighties, but it was set a lifetime earlier, in 1913. My adoptive parents were born in 1907 and 1908. I grew up in the 1950s.

There’s a quotation from about two hundred years ago – some attribute it to Sydney Smith – about what hasn’t been ‘reasoned in’, being difficult to ‘reason out’. Brought up to date, it means what we’re taught before we are old enough to rationalise its wisdom, is so taken for granted as to be virtually hard wired into us. And how old do we have to be before we even recognise, or learn about that process, and see that we have been exposed to it? My guess is that the learning, the recognition, comes later than the age at which we visit it on our own children.

As a counter-current to that, there was – but not necessarily only – a nice little change between the novel’s text, and the ‘same’ scene as recreated in the film version (which followed soon after publication). That involved a Derbyshire ‘peasant’ expressing his distrust of Welshmen. In the film, this had been expanded to include Jews. What agenda, I wonder, was being addressed by the addition, for it made no significant difference to the story, only to our perceptions of that working class individual. Stories, whenever they are set, whenever they are told, carry the stamp of the time of the telling, however historically accurate they might try to be.

But still it occurs to me that the ideas I’ll will have had not reasoned into me, are likely to have been those that were not reasoned into my parents by the generation  before. My maternal grandmother was born in 1876 (and her husband, I think, a few years earlier). She told me once of watching the soldiers go off by train to war. I presumed she meant the Staffordshire Regiment, and the First World War. She said she had been a young girl at the time though, and would have been in her thirties by then. She recalled the sight in the early nineteen sixties. The surprise was, that she remembered them wearing red uniforms. This must have been the early Boer War, or even one of the colonial slaughterfests of the late nineteenth century, when we had ‘the maxim gun, and they had not!’ Thus the slow pace of change, generation to generation. Thus the surprising similarities of thought, and assumption, in the minds of my parents, and the characters of a novel set in 1913.

Darren Harper, founder of the Carlisle Phil & Lit Society has asked me to deliver a creative writing course in addition to the Short Story Writing course that I shall running though January into March. Over the same ten weeks, but on Monday evenings at 7.00pm. This second course will take a more general approach, and because the other is centred on short stories, I’ll focus this one on the novel (at least as far the reading material and texts to work on are concerned). Here’s a brief overview of what’s planned…..

L&PC2 Further Into Fiction – a 10 week Fiction Writing Course

-designed by Darren Harper and taught by Mike Smith M.Litt (Glasgow)

 

Dates: 8 January until 12 March 2018 Mondays 7pm until 9pm

Venue: The Carlisle Phil & Lit Society, Room 8, Fisher Street Galleries 18 Fisher Street Carlisle CA3 8RH

Fees: £70 full fee £49 over 60 £14 in receipt of benefit Level Beginners to Intermediate

 

Description:

Using a combination of exercises, tutorials and seminars I’ll lead students through an exploration of the elements of fiction writing outlined below. Because I am running concurrently a short story course, all the texts used in this one will be taken from novels.

 

Introduction : An exercise in what we know about story – but not the one you expect!

Developing Character: Breadth and depth, limits and inner conflicts

Setting the Scene: Enabling the events, inviting the participants, manipulating the reader

Structure and Plot: Paragraphs and Chapters

Point of View 1: Who tells the story?

Point of View 2: Where are the readers?

The Little Box of Language Tricks: Emotional Weighting. Open & Closed sentences. Poetics.

Reading as a Writer: A stop and search mission

Drafting: Putters in and Takers out. Chronologies. Cruises and crossings.

Revision: CRIT Clarifications, Repetitions, Irrelevancies and Tightening

 

Suggested Reading:

The Shooting Party – Isabel Colegate

First Blood – David Morrell (trust me, ignore the films. This is a great study in plot/structure)

Sadly, Pewter Rose Press has now ceased trading…and I’ve taken the last remaining copies of BHD’s short story collection, Talking To Owls and his novella (or is it a novel…we can never decide), A Penny Spitfire. If you’d like a copy of either, I can supply at £5 each including postage (simply drop me the money  to the Paypal account of M.Smith at brindleyhd@aol.com and send me an e-mail to let me know your address).

Here’s what people have been saying about them:

 

Comment on A Penny Spitfire (080716, by J.F.D.)

I just finished re-reading your novel. I so enjoyed it. I read it slowly this time and really took in the descriptions at the openings of the chapters. The cumulative effect is to evoke a really strong mood that varies but is pervasive throughout the tale putting a clear picture of post-war destruction and gloom in my mind. The altered people, relationships, sense of difficulty in finding meaning and re-directing relationships and lives was palpable. I recognise what you portrayed as authentic because my adopted parents were old and they lived through rationing and and respectability. I so recall being shocked if my father swore and I knew my mother was unwell when she swore once. There was also the whole business of not saying things. You really captured that culture of not having a language for emotion (emotion not being useful for Empire building or war). I was so pleased Paul was alright and Burma Sammy by the end.
Thanks for a good read.

 

TALKING TO OWLS  (by Anon.?)

The characters in these stories embrace novel solutions to life’s many difficulties. A group of lonely men, retired to the countryside, find an unusual means of communication; on an otherwise idyllic Scottish island, a new resident tries out various ways to deal with the old problem of noisy neighbours; three members of the Grough family experience an urgent need to get home from the pub as quickly as possible. And a snail decides it must be rid of its shell. The author presents a range of colourful individuals, from His Lordship to the devious Willie Nobutt, speaking in a range of voices and dialects.

But while many of the stories are comic or fantastical, some are touching or haunting, and present mysteries which only the reader can solve. Many are experimental in form, and they vary in length from half a page to thirty-five. Many have already won prizes.

The writer can command a versatile range of styles. No Time Like The Present depicts the revelation of family secrets through photographs in a novel way, with some beautiful descriptive passages:

…the water was clear, transparent as a veil, and the sandy foreshore, mottled with rocks, showed through. Sunlight sparkled off the waves, riding their oval shadows, sky like a backdrop.

But maybe the author’s strongest suit is humour. In The Sweetest Sound two characters discuss the bagpipes:

‘Yer no a fan of the pipes then?’
‘I can tek em or leave ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d tek ’em’
‘I can think of a few places I’d leave ’em’…

While Cover Story, an absurd but sinister tale, set in a pub, featuring a writer and two men in ill-fitting suits, ends in this way:

…my foot….must have caught the tray, leaning up against the table-leg, because suddenly it rolled out into the centre of the floor and fell, spinning like a tossed coin, noisy as a dustbin lid, flattening out with the sound of metal fantails on a snare drum.

It seems to sum up the quality of the story, and in a way, the humour and originality of the collection as a whole.

4.0 out of 5 stars Only four stars as it is too short

 

By M. A. C. on 29 Dec. 2012 on Talking To Owls

Often when you read a short story, or come to that a full length novel, you will sigh and say to yourself ‘that was a good tale well told’. Talking to Owls isn’t a book like that. No, if you read this book, at the end of each of the short stories you’ll wonder if it is you who has changed. Brindley Hallam Dennis has a knack of making you think about how you react to events. The Mackwater Seam is a perfect example of how a short story should be written. It will stop you in your tracks and confront your prejudices. Naturally some stories in this collection are better than others, but although sometimes they appear to be lightweight they are not. Each story makes you think, but they don’t preach. Excellent value for money and the magic will go on working long after you have read each of the 140 pages. Buy and enjoy!


5.0 out of 5 starsA Penny Spitfire – Brindley Hallam Dennis

 

By Daniel on 2 Nov. 2011

Format: Paperback

A Penny Spitfire
Brindley Hallam Dennis

Thank God it’s all over, that’s what Charles Bury thought. That’s what they all thought. It just took them by surprise, afterwards, the way it was…

This is a very original novel, in subject matter and form. It is set in a small industrial town (which remains unnamed, though it may be Burton-on-Trent) immediately after the 2nd World War. Rather than dwelling on heroic exploits and victories achieved, as so many novels do, it describes the spoiled and broken lives of those who came back. It recounts their efforts to come to terms with the overwhelming experiences they have had, while adjusting to a world in which the structures they knew before they went to war have been swept away.

The various characters, across the social classes, find their previous lives and relationships irrelevant or impossible, or turn to drink to forget the terrors they witnessed. There are still guns to be had, and criminal characters and feral children gather on bomb-sites. Even in peace-time, violence and cruelty have not disappeared.

Rejecting straightforward narrative, the author tells his story in a sequence of scenes, as in a play, or more exactly, a black-and-white film, the setting for each scene often beautifully described: mostly dark, nocturnal, always poetic. He also employs a novel way of mingling speech and thought, the difference between them blurred, almost as if the characters are buried in their own memories and experiences, inarticulate, communicating incompletely with each other, before relapsing into recollection and introspection.

While much of what happens is difficult and gritty, and there is a violent denouement, the characters are richly-drawn and sympathetic, and the descriptions throughout are unusual, atmospheric and haunting. And towards the end of the novel the author gives us a glimpse, at least, of hope for the future:

And all around, the fields stood silvered in the moonlight… and the train, gathering speed as it moved away, drawn by the black lines of its track, carried, beneath its ermine cloak of steam, a single point of fierce orange light, lustrous as a new-made penny.

5.0 out of 5 starsA compelling glimpse into the aftermath of war

 

By Anne McDonnell on 8 Jun. 2011

Format: Paperback

In a Midlands industrial town, partly bombed, the locals are coming to terms with the legacy of World War Two. Their world has changed and yet their patterns of behaviour were set years ago.
In A Penny Spitfire, we follow Derek Fitton, as he struggles to connect his pre-war life of work and picnics with the experiences of war in India and post-war expectations. Jack and Paul, too young to have fought, fall in with Clive Dandridge, their Corp, who trains youngsters in his version of commandoes. And Charles, the younger son of the local industrialist who feels there has to be another way. Class and social distinctions are no longer so certain and no-one knows how to discuss any of it.

With evocative descriptions of an industrial world that no longer exists, and a style of writing that blurs the edges between thought and speech, Dennis opens a door on a time and people often forgotten. The characters and their lives remain with you long after the book is finished.

 

By Nicky Harlow on 8 Dec. 2011

Format: Paperback

Penny Spitfire is a poignant and prescient study of the impact of World War II on a small midlands town. We see the world largely through Derek Fitton’s eyes. A car mechanic foresighted enough to open a garage before the war began, he has returned from India to find that he can no longer connect to his own town, community, even his marriage. Dennis’s prose pulses with sensory detail. It seems coated in axle grease, powdered with dust. Read it and you smell metal and oil, turpentine and cigarette smoke; you can hear the clank of trains shunting into the nearby station, the revving of automobiles unused since 1939. It tastes of blood.
In this town the war is almost a character in its own right. It is the glue that holds together a group of dispossessed men and women – and the wedge that has been driven between them. The novel exists in a silent, held breath, a time between two worlds. The war is over; the process of change – social, ideological and technological – is already in motion. But for all the distant clanking, the dust has yet to clear.
This is a technically adept work. Dennis’s omniscient narration is no Dickensian voice, haranguing and moralising. More it is the voice of a presenter or an MC; a slow strip-tease revealing a society in flux. His characters – the dreamy socialist, Charles Bury, the traumatised Burma Sammy, the lying ne’er-do-well, Clive Dandridge, and Fitton himself – have been curtailed, interrupted. Their relationships are still dominated by the war; just as the town is still dominated by a huge bomb crater. It seems that death is all they have to look forward to.
Only the ever buxom and garrulous landlady of the Odd Dog demonstrates any joi de vivre. But even this seems forced. The past is not `another country’ in this novel. It is more vivid than the present into which it bleeds. It infects the town with a hazy nostalgia, filtering everything through its sticky nicotine-stained lens.
Penny Spitfire’s poetry clings to you long after you have read the final chapter. There is a strong metaphorical element here, exploited to great effect by Dennis. The railway carrying trains that are either going away or being shunted into sidings, the penny that pops up under many disguises: as payment for thoughts, for the spitfire, a lapel-pin fashioned from left-over metal, or to close the eyes of the dead. And there is something inevitably Denis Potterish in the sexual repression that seeps into all the characters’ actions.
The ending comes as a cruel irony. In what is considered by the characters to be a symbol of hope, we are offered a glimpse of our own twenty-first century crisis.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Dennis finds the seeds of our destruction in his story of post war Britain. Writing of this quality is as hard to find as a penny spitfire on a bombsite.

 

Radio 4 pissed me off this week. (No! Never! Well, hardly ever…). They announced a short story slot with the phrase ‘by the novelist’.

 

 

Pewter Rose will cease trading at the end of the month, but there is still time to buy copies of their publications, including A Penny Spitfire and Talking To Owls by Brindley Hallam Dennis.