Saturday 21 April 2018

Eminently readable tale about flawed souls living in a flawed world

Fiction: Adventures In Modern Marriage, William Nicholson, Quercus, €16.99

British playwright, novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson
British playwright, novelist and screenwriter William Nicholson

Anne Cunningham

In his latest novel, William Nicholson returns to Sussex to give us another slice of life from somewhere near Lewes, although like his previous Sussex novels, this book stands alone. Nicholson collects awards for his screenplays (Shadowlands, Gladiator, Les Miserables) with persistent regularity, though he has often asserted that the novel is his preferred art form.

This story is set in the days immediately before and after the UK general election of 2015, when the Tories win by a mile. Nicholson's small dramatis personae perceive the Tory coup to be yet another nail in their middle-aged, middle-class coffins.

This is the South Downs, Lib Dem country, an area populated by comfortably-off professionals who commute to London in their 4x4s, a place of small private schools and village fetes, a quiet and pastoral corner of England wherein every man (and woman) leads a rather affluent life of quiet desperation. And it is in his depictions of these quiet desperations that Nicholson, with a precise and Proustian eye for the infinitesimal, excels.

Henry Broad is about to be fired from his own series of TV documentaries. It seems that an experienced writer and presenter who's now in his fifties is just not sexy enough for TV. His wife, Laura, is about to lose a handsome commission on a sale of rare and valuable books. His adult daughter is back living at home, rarely leaving her room and, it seems, utterly defeated by the futility of her life.

Meanwhile, neighbours Liz and Alan have their own problems. Liz is keeping vigil at the bedside of her dying mother. The dying is protracted and stressful. It seems the tyrannical mother is squeezing the last drop of reluctant devotion that she possibly can from her only child. And Liz, a features writer, has a looming newspaper deadline for her feature about women's sex lives. Her husband Alan is busy selling his soul to Hollywood for a lot less than he used to, in attempting to re-write a screenplay that will please the moguls and still leave him with some scrap of self-respect. But that self-respect soars when he meets an old flame by chance, and they find they have unfinished business.

The sound bites from the election results are like a distant, throbbing backing track and, although none of these characters voted Labour, each one is disquieted by the Tory victory. This is the election that will ultimately lead to the suffocating pall of Brexit.

It's all a bit grim, really. But Nicholson is light in his touch and not a man to be easily cowed by impending gloom. He has plenty to say about the intimate lives of 21st century fifty-somethings, about their small triumphs and disasters, and his text is seasoned generously with wry humour and tiny, almost imperceptible ironies.

In this eminently readable novel about flawed souls in a flawed world, he reminds us - twice - of C.S. Lewis's line in Shadowlands, about why we read: "We read to know that we are not alone."

Sunday Indo Living

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment