Review: Byron Easy – Jude Cook

byronWhen I started to read Byron Easy I quickly realised that it was going to be a challenge, not only because of it’s huge scale (500 word-packed pages), but also because I was going to spend all that time in the head of Byron Easy as he travelled by train from London heading to the north of England.

It is a credit to Jude Cook that once I’d got used to the bizarre spaces inside Byron’s brain, I found myself caught up in this rambling retrospective of his chaotic life. My interest grew as I began to learn of his short-lived and disastrous marriage, his self-imposed penury and his seemingly hopeless future.

The book opens with Byron sitting on a train in London’s King’s Cross railway station.  It is the last day of 1999.  He has with him the sum total of his worldly goods: a leather shoulder bag containing a notebook, a Leeds street-finder, an empty wine-bottle, a toothbrush, a wad of crumpled fivers in a Jiffy bag a change of socks and a pamphlet of his own poetry.

He is a troubled man, who has recently separated from his wife of three years, a topic we are going to explore at length over the next 500 pages, but in the meantime he observes his fellow-passengers and gives us a detailed commentary on the uncomfortable journey he is taking courtesy of Great North-Eastern Railways.

My name is Byron Easy and I am sitting – or rather sardined – in a tight table-constricted booth on a train at King’s Cross and, until a few moments ago, I was alone with my thoughts.  I am pointing north, waiting to depart and already dying for a cigarette. . . . I’m trying to remember a lot of facts in order to forget them.  Believe me it’s the only way. If you want to close the door on the past, remember it all first; otherwise it keeps returning.

As the train slips out of the station Byron begins to tell us his life story, focusing on his life in London where he eked out a living as part-time record-shop assistant while trying to devote himself to becoming a writer.  In his head, Byron is a writer but he seems to have precious little to show for it, other than the developing narrative which he reveals to we, his readers, as we speed north through the outer suburbs of London and on into the hinterland beyond.

Jude Cook

Jude Cook

Byron’s love life seems to be dominate his thoughts.  After describing his life in London, living in a series of appalling flats, he eventually hooks up with Beatrice, a girl from his home-town, who is “level-headed, sane” with a calm beauty which draws Byron into her almond-coloured eyes and auburn hair. The course of love however does not run smoothly; Byron soon meets Mandy, a half-Spanish woman who’s sheer sexiness overwhelms him.  With Bea, Byron had had sanity and stability and a relationship which was drifting into normality, but Mandy is a singer with an all-girl band called Fellatrix and has an exotic allure which Byron seems unable to resist.

When Mandy discover that Byron is a writer, she persuades him to write lyrics for her band, a task which requires Byron to take on a nightly climb up four flights of stairs to her opera-house of a room where he drinks wine until the small hours and allows Mandy to divine his future by the use of Tarot cards.  Poor Byron seems to be defenceless against the fascinatingly theatrical Mandy despite the her mood-swings, and dramas which suggest there might be a mighty load of trouble ahead.

As we readers hear about these events, Byron keeps breaking off to tell us about his fellow passengers and the events going on around him.  The train is as chaotic as any New Year’s Eve express and Jude Cook tells us about the lovers kissing goodbye on a platform racing past, the accountant couple sitting opposite him and the suppressed violence of a man sitting ahead of him.  He develops a fast moving flow of words which matches the speed of the train as it rushes north, and for his first novel, Jude Cook demonstrates a remarkable level of self-assurance in his command of language.

I am sitting on the hurtling, fevered train, staring at the pale faces opposite me.  Until a moment ago I had been lost in that first kiss, that epidemic summer.  And, obviously, weeping.  Oh, I forgot to tell you. I made friends with them.  The Accountant Couple, that is.  Well, they say it’s often the people closest to you that you fail to notice.  They’re not accountants after all.  She is a counsellor, and he is a mortgage advisor.  They had to be didn’t they?Or something similar, something crushingly plausible.  Where have all the artists gone?  The chisellers and ink-dippers?  The mad-haired prodigies of poetry?

Great North Eastern at Kings Cross

Great North Eastern at Kings Cross

And what were those tears about?  By this time we have learned that Mandy was not all she seemed to be.  Byron married her, perhaps far too early, and the couple lived a hand-to-mouth existence surviving on a minimal amount of money while living in cock-roach infested flats.  Before long, strains appeared in their relationship and the horror commenced.

I am not going to spoil the book for readers by describing the horrendous consequences of Byron’s marriage to Mandy.   But over the next three of four hundred pages we get the full epic story of a man’s decline and fall, as his woman drives him to the edge and leaves him hanging on by his fingernails over the canyon below.  Slowly it becomes clear why Byron seems to be so traumatised – for this was no ordinary marital breakdown but a huge car-crash of a break-up which left Byron barely able to function as a human being once it was all over.

In its way, Byron Easy is unlike any other book I have read (although I was at times reminded of Willy Russell’s book The Wrong Boy, another epic story of developing personal crisis).  My sympathy for Byron’s troubles was only spoilt by the way in which they were largely of his own making.  The enforced poverty of his existence could easily have been overcome by getting a job, and his head-long rush into marriage with Mandy was accompanied by so many warning signals it took a supremely blinkered individual to ignore them.  However, as a piece of modern literature it’s an admirable piece of work and I can only commend Jude Cook for his ability to navigate this novel from beginning to end with such style and panache.

16 comments to Review: Byron Easy – Jude Cook

  • Super commentary Tom.

    Folks who wind up in such dire personal straits often (but certainly not always) do so as a result of a series of horrendous decisions. This sounds like a realistic and interesting portrait of reality.

  • This is already on my ‘to read’ list. What struck me was the similarity to Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim, and perhaps to a lesser degree to Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Is there a genre developing here of men with failed relationships going wandering about Britain? A very engaging review.

  • This based on your description does have a lot of appeal, even with the length & dire circumstances of the protagonist. I will check this out. Thanks

  • one to watch out for to I think ,all the best stu

  • Tom

    Hi Stu – yes, it’s pretty good stuff. A name to watch I think – Jude Cook

  • Tom

    Hi Parrish – thanks for visiting again. The downfall is long and deep!

  • Tom

    What a great “similar book”. Of course and I should have thought of it myself. Even The Lighthouse by ??? has some synergies.

  • Tom

    Thanks for visiting Brian. He’s a name to watch out for – and so young!

  • This is a book I picked up this afternoon in a bookshop, then put down again, not quite sure if it would be too drawn out. I may well buy it next time as you’ve piqued my interest.

  • Tom

    Hmm, a great book but I’m not sure I’d buy it in hardback at full price. Best wait a bit I think!

  • [...] Byron Easy by Jude Cook was reviewed by A Common Reader: [...]

  • Tom

    Hi Stu, it’s a great book isn’t it. Hard to fault it really. Isn’t Finnish supposed to be the most difficult European language?

  • Hi Richard – Sorry for the delay in replying – I’ve been away. A fascinating interview – thanks for the link

  • Catherine

    Just found your site, what a great find!

    I know this might be an odd comment/question, but I read reviews of this book on a big online book site and many many people made the same mistake you have made: they said it was the last day of 1999. The first page of the book clearly says it’s Christmas Eve… and I wonder if I’m missing something (or the reviews are?). Does the author make the error of changing days mid-text somewhere? Or somehow give the impression the narrator confuses the dates? Apologies for asking, I know it’s really trivial, but after I read about 20 reviews in various places I became very curious!

  • Hello Catherine – sorry for the delay in replying. I regret I no longer have this book so can’t check the dates – but I’m sure you are right. I checked the preview on the Amazon site and it definitely says Christmas Eve. I expect I was waylaid by “the last one” of 1999. I must read more carefully

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