I couldn’t resist this novel: first, the title, and second, it’s a West Riding novel by the author of This Sporting Life, which I still haven’t read. Saville won the Booker Prize in 1976, and if you believe the review from The Times it’s “mesmerically readable”. Which in some sense must be true, because I did get to the end despite not engaging with the main character.
The novel itself looked a treat, a 555-page door-stopper which is one of only about three books I’ve bought new this year, and I was looking forward to reading it. It is the story of Colin Saville as he moves from a working class background in the 1930s, via the scholarship exam and a place at grammar school, into a no man’s land of discomfort in the 50s, caught between two classes. At least I think it takes us as far as the 50s: one of my main complaints (and it may just be that I wasn’t picking up all the clues and hints) is that it was hard to know how much time was passing between events; how old is Colin’s younger brother when his bringing home a girl causes an argument, for instance (12? 16?)?
Despite Colin being the main character, who links all the other characters and whose actions we follow, I never felt I had any insight into him – he seemed more like a prop, a marker to show us where to look. Until about page 200 Colin is essentially monosyllabic and it’s easy to forget that he’s there at all; even afterwards we seem to observe him from a distance with few clues to his thoughts or attitudes, so that several of his later actions seemed (at least to me) to come from nowhere, a surprise that I couldn’t explain, such as a sudden fight with his brother. Events seem to have no purpose or to go nowhere, fairly major characters walking off the page and it only becomes clear that they’ve gone for good when you’ve reached the last page without their getting another mention. Colin’s published poetry is introduced and dealt with in a couple of sentences: at no time is it suggested that he’s attempting to publish poetry, the publication has clearly happened at some time in the past, when it’s mentioned, and nothing further comes of it. I’m not saying I only like novels with neatly interlocking sub-plots, heavy foreshadowing and no loose ends, but it did feel rather aimless at times.
The aimlessness may well have been intentional, a metaphor for Colin’s life. Son of a miner, pushed hard in his schoolwork by his father so that Colin didn’t have to follow in his footsteps, Colin has the dubious privilege of attending the grammar school in the nearby city, mixing with boys from a different (middle- and upper-class) world. He follows the path of least resistance, working hard and playing rugby not because he wants to but because other people want him to and he seems to have no opinions of his own. Later he drifts into relationships and activities and the final section could have come from any gritty northern novel of its time, the aimless young man and his empty extra-marital sex.
The author was born in Wakefield (in and around which Saville appears to be set) and moved to London; this is reflected in the novel and may be part of what I didn’t like – an underlying assumption that the only answer to being sensitive and artistic in Yorkshire is to move to the capital. Saville seems to be a good portrait of a pit village childhood of the 30s and 40s, and the portrayal of the outsider at grammar school (not middle class enough) and the outsider within the family (too middle class) was good, but it’s a long and dreary book, and crucially there’s an underlying resentment. I’m afraid I wouldn’t recommend it.