Eternity Is Temporary
by Bill Broady
Portobello Books £10.99, 304 pages
What a curious, suggestive novel this is. Set in Camden, north London, during the endless heatwave of 1976, punk rock brewing in the background like a storm come to wash away all that went before, it’s about the love affair between Evan and Adrea, a young couple who work in a care home peopled by weirdos and derelicts.
If Evan and Adrea are an inverted Adam and Eve, then this geriatric backwater is their anti-Eden. “They obviously believed that they had all the time in the world, that nothing would ever change,” we’re told. Yet like the freakishly hot summer outside, the twisted paradise they find in the Heron Close retirement home cannot last: eternity is temporary.
Evan is a rock-music-loving squatter in his early twenties. Adrea is an 18-year-old whiling away time before beginning her English literature degree. They are both uncannily beautiful and strangely alike. Surrounding them is a gallery of grotesques. Mr Price, the deputy matron, is a corpulent, Mahler-addicted aesthete. We meet him on his 47th birthday, an age he dreads as “the two ugliest numbers in alignment, like a cripple groping for his cane”. Reflecting obsessively on a life studded with disappointment - romantic, professional, sexual - he diverts himself by engineering Evan’s and Adrea’s relationship, as if playing a cut-price Prospero.
Mr Snow, his assistant, is the villain of the piece, a monstrous sadist who delights in tormenting the residents. Their numbers include Terry, a Parkinson’s-suffering mute who sits twitching in a wheelchair and three old women known as the Babies “with matted hair, wide, dead eyes in which the pupils seemed to float and faces dripping with drool and snot”.
The plot, in which Adrea and Evan bring a new lease of life to the aged inmates by thwarting Snow’s machinations and organising outings to the local pub, resembles Ken Kesey’s anti-institutional fable One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But there is nothing uplifting about this novel. Its love of caricature prevents sympathetic engagement with its characters.
Broady writes with rude, comic dynamism. As if channelling the spirits of Jonathan Swift and Rabelais, he is obsessed with physical incontinence and the animal side of human nature. He is also drawn to the macabre. Evan’s mocking flatmates “resembled those grotesque background figures in German religious paintings, gloating as Christ lugs the cross towards Calvary”.
The comic energy and surreal physicality of the writing make up for the plot’s lack of action. Broady’s aim is to capture a pivotal moment in life when time seems suspended and weightless, and all possibilities are open. This introduces a certain stasis to the narrative but gives the novel a striking logic of its own. It is the “philosophical romance” that Price imagines writing in another life, “at once as light as a feather and as heavy as lead”, profundity and absurdity coupled as indistinguishably and attractively as Evan and Adrea.
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