Meeting the English
London, Picador, 2013, 310p
It is such an honour to work alongside and be friends with Kate Clanchy. She is an inspiration to the students she mentors, and she helps them produce the most incredibly poetry and prose. I have never met anyone who works so hard, so I was astounded when she informed me she had found time to write a novel. And not just any novel, but one full of dark humour, monstrous characters, and beautiful narrative.
Meeting the English is the story of Struan Robertson, a young Scot who moves down to London to be the carer of Philip Prys: a playwright way past his best before date who is paralysed following a stroke. Struan is an alien in London, during the hot summer of 1989. He finds himself living with a strange family full of secrets and resentment, who bumble through their lives thinking only of themselves, with hardly a care for the now silent playwright.
Kate has incredible skill in creating every one of these characters. She is right inside the mind of each of them, narrating from multiple perspectives. None of them are particularly likeable, although you grow to better understand and empathise with them, until you even want some of them to find a happy ending. The Prys family is comprised of so many selfish individuals that you wonder how they have survived this long. But the introduction of Struan to the house gives them some perspective, unsettling the family just enough to make them reflect on themselves.
My favourite thing about this novel is its setting. In London, in the long, hot summer of 1989, Kate creates a world of confusion and upheaval, both within the Prys household, and in the wider world. She refers to contemporary culture, international relations, and that blistering heat. 1989 almost becomes a character itself, quintessential to the plot. It is subtle, in contrast to novels set in Victorian England, for example, in which the author's research into the era is constantly thrown in the readers' face. Kate knows this summer and remembers this world; she does not need to show off about it.
I have read way too much teenage fiction recently: it has made my mind a bit mushy. At first, it felt strange to read something with such complex language, adult themes, and mature pace. But Kate's intelligence seeps through every page - I could hear her voice as I read it - and her creativity has produced this dark, witty story full of self-destructive characters. The language is beautiful, engaging all your senses with vivid descriptions. It is very refreshing to read something so modest and yet so sagacious.