Meeting the English, by Kate Clanchy, Picador, RRP£16.99, 268 pages
Kate Clanchy’s sharp and charming first novel Meeting the English is set, daringly, in Hampstead. While it contains some of the staples traditionally associated with that odd mythical creature The Hampstead Novel – exasperating bohemians, adultery, anorexia, actors, artists, A-levels, abortions, roll-ups, rustication, property speculation and outdoor swimming – it has none of the ponderous languor, the self-conscious loftiness or moral complacency that the NW3 novel genre is rumoured to contain. (I am not certain that it ever did but that is another story altogether.) Meeting the English is an accomplished and lively work, good-natured – kindness is particularly prized – but also underwritten by a keen understanding of the way we live.
In the hot summer of 1989 Struan Robertson, an academically gifted, potato-pale, 17-year-old youth from Scotland, answers an advert in the London Review of Books: “Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair”. Struan, an orphan who lives with his grandmother, is still mourning and smarting from nursing his father through his final illness. He has no teenage bad habits, few friends and a meagre amount of clothes bought at C&A. He has never been to London before. In fact, all he really knows about the great steaming metropolis is that once people go there, unlike Spain, say, they never return to the Highlands again.
Struan is soon plunged into the life of the playwright and novelist Phillip Prys, a man whose work he has studied for his Scottish higher examinations. Prys has suffered a stroke and can no longer speak or move. “Meesstahpreese,” Struan says on their introduction, “Avecomtayelp”. At the Hampstead house, where at least two Mrs Pryses seem to come and go, Struan is buffeted and scolded by Myfanwy, the former wife who is a Laura Ashley-obsessed property developer, and charmed and intrigued by Shirin, the current wife, who is a young Iranian postmodern miniaturist, working in acrylics. He befriends Myfanwy and Phillip’s troubled, overweight daughter Juliet, whose anorexic best friend feeds her a family bag of Minstrels every day after school. He helps Phillip into a comfortable routine.
We soon learn that Phillip was rather inhuman when well: the pages devoted to his character before the stroke are crammed with casual misogyny, jolly homophobia, smug racism, snobbery and inverted snobbery and grim professional jealousies. Proper stories were going out, he complains bitterly, and “posh namby pamby gossamer was coming in instead, written by women half of it. Angela bloody Carter.”
Yet Struan treats his charge with tremendous levels of compassion and respect. No one in his family has accorded Phillip this sort of courtesy: they are almost all still reeling from his enormous egoism and colossal lack of care.
Clanchy, who is a distinguished poet, writes prose to relish. A simple morning ablution is rendered with great brio: “In the mirror his head, brown and speckled as a breakfast egg, dipped, spat, rinsed.” The passages in which Prys, post-stroke, tries to make sense of the odd new reality, which is liquid and unstable before him, are confidently handled and convincing.
Clanchy also gives us devastating arguments between mother and teenage daughter, the plights and gripes escalating until they reach almost murderous proportions. When Juliet, unsuccessful in love, suggests she could be a lesbian, her mother answers: “You’re too fat. You can’t be a fat lesbian, see, because people will just think that’s why you are one. Because you can’t get a man, you see. Lesbians don’t want lesbians like that.” Both women believe that Prys would have loved his daughter more had she been conventionally beautiful. This is probably true.
The cultural and historic highlights of 1989 make fleeting appearances in this book. Nelson Mandela’s meeting with President PW Botha, stark changes to the NHS, Salman Rushdie’s fatwa, the absence of concern about global warming, all anchor the action in a satisfying way.
Of course, my familiarity with this book’s setting may well have added to my enjoyment of it. However, this is a strong and rather gallant novel of family life and what (if anything) can be done about it, and I suspect absolutely no prior knowledge of Hampstead and its ways is required.
Susie Boyt is author of ‘The Small Hours’ (Virago)