For today’s stop on the blog tour for The Last of the Bowmans by J Paul Henderson I’m not going to write a review. You’ve already read a few of those I’m sure, and anyway I wrote one for The Bookbag about a month ago (go read it now if you like, I’ll wait). Instead, I thought I’d tell you why I wrote the review in the first place.
Reviewing books for The Bookbag is always a thrill because I get to pick from their list of available books, some of which haven’t even been published yet (the exclusivity!), then I get a book dropping through the letterbox, which perks up the day no end. The fiction list usually includes debut authors, authors who’ve been around a while but haven’t crossed my radar, and authors I’m familiar with. New and emerging authors often sway me, they probably benefit more from a review than a bigger name with an established fanbase, and I might turn up something unexpected. J Paul Henderson wasn’t a name I’d come across before, having completely missed his debut novel Last Bus to Coffeeville despite both Leeds and Bradford libraries having copies in stock. The last few books I’d reviewed had been crime or fairly intense sci-fi so I was looking for something lighter, though not necessarily out and out comedy. I looked at the details of What a Way to Go by Julia Forster (hmm, maybe) then The Last of the Bowmans (his brother’s doing what and his Uncle Frank WHAT? Visited by his dead father?!). It certainly sounded different and it was the little details in the synopsis that grabbed me and made me take notice. His father wasn’t just dead he was in a bamboo coffin, of all things; his brother’s not just a stalker but stalking a woman with no feet. Intriguing. Could go either way, I thought, depends how he’s likely to come at it – what else do we know about this author? He’s from Bradford – done deal.
In case you haven’t read a review or even a synopsis yet, here’s what the novel’s about: Greg Bowman’s been in America for a few years, staying in touch with his dad Lyle and Lyle’s barmy brother Frank, but not with his own brother Billy. Never the most reliable member of the Bowman family, nevertheless Greg makes it home for Lyle’s funeral and sticks around to help sort out his affairs and do up the house, in no way using it as an excuse not to return to his girlfriend in Texas (honest). It’s while Greg is sitting down to dinner at his dad’s house after a day of planning and inventories that the ghost of Lyle appears to him and asks him to take over some unfinished business – sorting out Frank and Billy. Henpecked Billy has become a stalker, and Uncle Frank the Planet Rock listening Wild West aficionado is planning, aged nearly eighty, to rob a bank. Greg reluctantly starts unpicking family secrets and finds a startling one of his dad’s that he’s not sure what to do with.
Comedy’s never an easy thing to pull off in a novel, and comedy drama (I think) is even harder, but The Last of the Bowmans cracks it. I once described A Touch of Daniel by Peter Tinniswood as ‘understated deadpan surrealist dark northern humour at its best’, and The Last of the Bowmans definitely follows in its footsteps with its odd characters and surreal situations interleaved with the humdrum. It’s the mundane details that make it, they ground the whole thing so that it’s that much easier to accept a ghost in a ballgown having a chat with his son, for instance. I’m not saying it’s flawless (neither was A Touch of Daniel, few books are) but it found its groove early on and powered along at a fair clip. In my (biased) opinion, northern writers tend to handle comedy drama better than most because it chimes with a certain northern approach to life, a general attitude that doesn’t take the world too seriously. The tragicomic prologue of The Last of the Bowmans where eighty-three-year-old Lyle dies in the pursuit of a chocolate bar sets the mood nicely, and you can’t beat a good funeral scene in a book like this. Particularly if you’ve got a cantankerous old bachelor like Uncle Frank there to wind up the vicar and assorted attendant old women. The book is dedicated ‘For the Uncle Franks of this world’ and I have to say Frank was probably my favourite character, I like an eccentric that goes his own way and his love of Planet Rock helped.
As well as the obvious family themes (commonalities among differences, misunderstandings and different viewpoints or versions of past events) there’s the idea of the returning wanderer with Greg. Through his eyes we see what’s changed (and what, perhaps surprisingly, hasn’t) in the seven years of his absence. The distance, both from the place and the people he left behind, has given him a different perspective on his family and – partly because he’s cleaned up his act, partly because of his mission from Lyle – he’s attuned to things he would once have missed. Having left West Yorkshire and family myself for a similar amount of time to Greg, I remember that dual feeling of coming home and being a stranger and I think that helped draw me in. There are extra resonances for me in that Billy lives in an unnamed small town in the Wharfe Valley that could well be heavily based on the bit of Wharfedale I can see from my study window, and one of my sisters (like Billy) was forced into a change of direction fifteen years ago when the mills closed and her niche job didn’t exist any more.
Whatever your background, if you enjoy a good black comedy The Last of the Bowmans will make you laugh even as it makes you think about how much you really know your nearest and dearest. And if you do happen to be from West Yorkshire, so much the better.
The Last of the Bowmans was released by No Exit Press on January 21st and you can get it in print, for Kindle, or as an epub (see the No Exit Press website for details). My proof copy came via The Bookbag (thank you!), so I could review it for them over there.