Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Our house is a very very very fine house..." (Books - Rough Music)

Sylvia was at their usual corner table. She had none of his wife's inhibitions about entering a pub on her own. She gave him a little wave as he entered. He smiled at her on his way to the bar and pointed at her gin glass but she covered it with a small hand to show that she was all right for the moment. Joining her, he marveled afresh at how very neat she was. White hair, discreetly assisted so that one could tell she had once been a blonde, curled neatly about small ears. Her pink blouse was creaseless. Her thin legs were tucked neatly away into the recess beneath her settle. The only untidy touch was her jewelry, of which she wore a profusion, but even then she favored gold over gems; the glitter combined with the sharply pressed outlines of her clothes to lend her appearance a hint of the military. They did not kiss.

"How are you doing?" he began instead, their customary greeting.

Sylvia spoke lightly, raising her glass. "If Teresa hand't arrived when she did, I think I'd have pushed him under a bus."

"Not good then."

She drank then laughed bitterly. "Funny, isn't it? Good used to mean a sunny holiday, a comfortable retirement or, what was it you called it that time? The tenuous possibility of very cautious sex. Now it's what? A smile that might be meant for you or might just be wind. A morning when he hasn't pulled his nappy off in the night. A day when he's calm, even nice. I tell you, I used to want him to be aware so badly. I wanted him to recognize who he was. Now I want his brain to hurry up and fry itself. When that look comes into his eyes and I know he's aware and he's like 'what's happening to me?' I can't stand it." She drank again, lit a cigarette, hand shaking slightly with need as she inhaled. "Listen to me," she said and restored neatness with a smile. "I'm fine, John, I'm, fine. How are you?"

"Fine," he said, smiling. "I'm fine and Frances is fine too. I mean relatively. A bit forgetful. A bit...But compared to what Steve's going through..."

"I know," she said quietly, adding words that were both reassurance and threat. "Early days yet, John. Early days."

Given the way they had found each other and the clandestine manner of their meetings, they ought to be having an affair. In a woman's sense, he supposed, in an emotional sense, they already were. Certainly Frances would be as wounded and jealous if she knew of the depth of their shared confidences as if he had set Sylvia up in a love-nest.

It was a relief when the narrative voice in Patrick Gale's Rough Music expanded beyond the cuteness with which this novel opened. The predictability of the confession to a psychiatrist in the opening chapter as a causeway to memory irritated me, as did the primness of Will/Julian the protagonist, but these choices and every other that Gale made tied neatly in to his well-structured plot. He is very good with the way members of a family protect one another. It's done in the name of love but often it's really to protect oneself the discomfort of facing change. There are infidelities, misunderstandings, there is Alzheimer's disease, there is the crude American branch of the family interacting with the prudish English branch of the family - the American trying to free the British, the British trying to restrain the American. There doesn't seem to be anyone's head who Gale fails to get inside convincingly - whether that character is old or young, male or female, gay or straight. The experience of the book felt revealing - like looking through a relative's private diary or love letters. I felt not only like I knew these characters intimately but as though I understood something about people better in general. There were time the plotting felt studded with a few too many coincidences, but I grew interested in Will/Julian and his family, who like most families were more complicated than they first appeared, and found myself wanting to know they ended up as they were. Rough Music offers surprises and insight wrapped in an easy-going contemporary narrative style . I'm glad to have discovered Patrick Gale.

This post as well as this one constitute my thoughts on Rough Music.

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