The Old Romantic, by Louise Dean, Fig Tree RRP£12.99, 292 pages
This dark, scurrilous and richly comic novel centres on a bonily ancient, selfish, wheedlingly endearing rogue. Ken lives with a small, spherical second wife in Hastings and is obsessed with death. He has two sons: playboy Nick has re-invented himself, become a solicitor and taken the highly polished Astrid and her daughter Laura to live in the Weald of Kent, while Dave, the boring one, is married to anxious Marina and has two naughty adolescent children.
In every sense, Dave lives between the others; he longs, despairingly, to re-unite them all. Surprisingly this is achieved, but only after the demolition of many an apparently insuperable obstacle. For a start, old Ken is besotted with a sturdy undertaker called Audrey Bury, who is given to driving her hearse at speed along the seafront. She takes Ken through the nitty-gritty of her trade, from the grisly embalming process to a lordly behind-the-scenes visit to a crematorium, where two men, both called Ronnie, shovel coffins into ovens.
There is so much to treasure in this terrific book, but its deepest joy is the sharp, perceptive writing. In Hastings, lettered rock “congeals in cellophane under blow-heaters” near sad guesthouses “uniform as custard creams”, while old men sit on benches “shaking to the tune of Parkinsons” and nearly everyone is a full-time alcoholic. Dave’s children, witnessing adult discomfiture, silently exhibit “naked glee”, and disgruntled Astrid is pleased that Nick’s sight is failing, for “every Delilah wants her Samson blind”.
Dave considers running away, but wants Marina to join him; Ken relaxes happily into the bizarre and bossy ambit of his alarming first wife; best of all, Astrid exuberantly gives up being perfect, for Nick “was only himself, or the self he liked, when she was there”. Even little Laura stops wanting to be a fairytale princess: “Now,” she declares, “I want to be the witch.”