Tells the story of the gradual decline of Charlie and Maureen Buck's marriage, against the backdrop of the Thatcherite years. The book starts with Charlie working, or rather being on a picket line, at Times newspapers, with a wife and 20-something year old son at home in the council flat, and tracks their progress through the '80s as Charlie fails, but Maureen succeeds, in adapting to the social and economic changes that sweep the country.
Like his other books, this is very readable. From the prologue at the start of the book, we know what's going to happen at the end (and even if that hadn't been there, it would have been possible to work it out), but the story unravels in a way that makes it difficult to put down. From Maureen's extra-marital affair to Charlie's attempt to find happiness through the personal columns, it's all told in convincing detail so that it's a bit like watching an accident - part of you doesn't want to watch but you can't help it.
Unlike his other two novels, Love Secrets.. and White City Blue, it feels like it is set in a different age. I read an article which mentioned that Lott had used shopping catalogues to research the fashions and furniture of the time, so as to be able to evoke a convincing picture of the late '70s, with Dallas on the TV and Hai Karate after-shave in the bathroom.
The book is billed as a comic novel, but although it evoked some wry smiles, I think Jonathan Coe has it right when he describes it as "almost unbearably moving". Charlie's attempts to make something of his life are, as we can see but he can't, doomed to failure. This isn't such a direct attack on Thatcherite values as is found in What a Carve Up!; Lott seems more resigned to the fact that change has to happen, and doesn't attempt to paint government policies as being directly to blame.
Again, there are echoes in this book of the themes that came up in Lott's autobiography, in which his parents were portrayed as bemused by the way the country and culture of their youth changed and left them behind. Also, with this book as in his other novels, there is the sense that Lott doesn't really like himself very much: the main characters in both the other novels were ultimately unsympathetic, and that's the case with most of the people in this book: no-one, even Charlie, looks very good at the end of it: even the volunteers at the hospital, befriending the terminally ill, are "predominantly women acting out of mixed motives. To comfort the dying, but to comfort themselves, who are also dying, at a more sedate pace. They look for a way of believing themselves good."
Great read though. I wish he'd done more; looks like I might have to re-read some of his books while waiting for his next one to appear.
Completed : 29-Jul-2004