I’ve been making a conscious decision to read books outside my usual genre recently. I read a crime novel (Christine Falls) and at the moment I’m reading a mass market thriller (Gone Girl). But when I saw the cover of Fallout in Berkelouw books a couple of months ago, I couldn’t resist. The cover promised 1970s London and is so close to the style of book I’m writing, I had to read it. Even better, the sales assistant gave Sadie Jones a ringing endorsement.
And I’ve discovered a new favourite author.
Fallout is the story of four young people trying to make it in the world of experimental theatre in 1970s London. In a chance meeting in his Lincolnshire village, Luke Kanowski meets the fiery Leigh Radley and Paul Driscoll on their way to meet a playwright. Its the impetus that Luke needs to escape his dull life in an office job and run away to London and immerse himself in the theatre world. He’s leaving behind a mother who has been in an asylum nearly all his life, and a father who is slowly drinking himself to death. Luke and Paul set up their own theatre company called Graft, while Luke secretly writes plays at night and Leigh works as a stage manager to pay the bills.
Luke and Paul are strongly attracted to Leigh, but its Paul she chooses when Luke rebuffs her.
Running parallel is the story of Nina Jacobs, a budding actress whose life will intersect with the other three in a dramatic way. She’s grown up with a mother who is a monster – a fading narcissistic actress who is now pinning her hopes on her daughter. A critical step is marrying her off to the successful and influential but cruel Tony Moore.
When Luke’s first play is critically acclaimed, its seems natural that Paul and his new theatre company will produce his second offering. But Luke has become entangled with Nina and the liaison will have huge ramifications for all of them.
There are so many things to love about this book. The characterisation is brilliant. Luke, Nina, Leigh and Paul are all convincingly portrayed and always consistent. Luke is emotionally stunted as a result of his neglected upbringing and the way he clings to Paul and Leigh in the flat they share as his replacement family is touching and believable. He beds lots of women but is unable to have a fulfilling relationship and the reader’s sympathy is with him all the way.
I read an interview with Sadie Jones talking about the character of Nina and how she created in Nina the kind of woman she really hates. But I felt sorry for Nina because her mother was so dreadful and even at her worst, I could not help but see what a tortured soul she is.
The period is brilliantly evoked, from the walks through dark streets during the power cuts, to the fears that the bomb has been dropped, the grimness of 1970s London is painted very subtly. Jones does well to drop in these details without straining, which I find a problem in some historical fiction. You can almost smell the beer wafting up the stairs of the pub theatre.
And there’s some outstanding writing – Luke seducing the au pair at a party, ‘and his thoughts were reduced gratefully to the heated maths of getting inside her clothes, taking up all of him in blessed focus’ and overcome with desire ‘burning and aching within and without from her imprint’.
The plot is not complex but evolves from the distinct failings of the characters and their obsessions. The climax and ending are really satisfying for this reason.
And that reminds me of an article I read recently on writing tips from Booker Prize winners. The one that stayed in my mind was from Arundhati Roy, the winner in 1997 for The God of Small Things.
She said “…the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets….They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen…You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t.”
This is the best book I’ve read this year and I’ve already added Sadie Jones’ other books to my birthday wish list.