If ever there was a candidate for next year’s Booker Prize, then this is it. I’ve never heard of Lousie Dean before, even though The Old Romantic is her fourth novel. She won the Betty Trask award in 2004 for Becoming Strangers and has also been long-listed for the Booker while also winning the Guardian First Book Award. Where have I been? The Old Romantic is so good.
As the book opens we meet Nick and his partner Astrid who are driving to Hastings to pick up Nick’s father Ken, a miserly, cantankerous old man, living in Hastings on the South Coast with his unfortunate wife June. They are all going to have lunch with Dave, Nick’s brother and his wife, Marina. The lunch will be dominated by Ken’s announcement that he wants to leave all his money to son number two, Dave, and expects Nick, a lawyer, to draw up the will which will so determinedly favour his brother. Astrid can’t help herself from exclaiming, “What about Nick?”, only to hear the irascible old man reply,
Thank you young lady, but you’re new to this family. You’re not even in the this family, matter of fact, so I’ll ask you to keep your nose out.
Ken’s appalling behaviour suffuses this book. He really is a wicked old man, blind to his own failings and judgemental about everyone else’s. When people treat him as he deserves he is puffily hurt and fails to see how his own provocations are at the root of his troubles.
We meet a fine cast of characters, most notably Ken’s ex-wife Pearl, who is equally outspoken, and lives off the charity of kind-hearted son Dave while proclaiming a bogus pride in her own self-reliance. I enjoyed the way that Louise Dean doesn’t just concentrate on Ken and his family but lets her readers into the lives of all her characters, even the minor ones like Nick’s ex-girlfriend Morwen, or the creepy divorced Dad who tries to make a girl-friend of his twelve-year old daughter. I enjoyed reading about Astrid’s delightfully-drawn, oh-so middle-class parents who meet Ken for a lunch encounter which for readers has much akin to watching a car-crash.
The relationship between the two brothers is surprisingly endurable despite heavy squalls along the way. Dave, the conciliator, trying to be at peace with everyone else, eventually loses his rag and blurts out some home truths. Upwardly-mobile Nick can’t help but revert to his father’s type when the chips are down, despite loathing what the old man stands for. Louise Dean delights in the set-piece encounters – the difficult lunch date, the meeting of fiancée and old girl-friend, the family re-union of people who would be better remaining apart. She has a dramatic capability which makes her readers feel they are watching a stage-play, the building tension, the digression into minor detail then a return to the action which make this a hard book to put down.
We go into some peculiar places in this book. Ken fills up his spare time by volunteering at a funeral director’s business in St Leonards, owned by the woman he idolises, the plump and business-like Audrey, turning a lustful eye not only on her appearance but also the money she turns over. Audrey gradually inducts Ken into the more subtle arts of funeral direction and I have to admire Louise Dean for her impeccable research which lets her readers discover the secrets of embalming (a couple of pages which are definitely not for the squeamish).
I suppose this book will be described as a black comedy, which it is to a degree. I was reminded of early William Trevor, and of course Graham Swift’s novel, Last Orders which has some synergy with The Old Romantic, not least the funereal theme! In no way am I suggesting this book is derivative, for Louise Dean’s voice is entirely her own: she writes confidently with a fine touch for the nuances of family life – and the dark concerns of embittered old men.
On a personal note, I appreciated the accuracy of the geographical detail as I used to work in the area described in this novel. Hastings is a run-down South Coast town with pockets of gentrification and Louise Dean obviously knows it as well as I do. In a recent interview on BBC Radio 4′s Open Book, she told listeners that she was born in the town and so knows it well:
Hastings has been on its uppers for many, many years – there are rumours, very much exagerrated, about Hastings having a revival . . . but its still humble and humbling, and fascinating and unkempt and wayward, and in some ways its very much a character itself.
Louise Dean obviously enjoys locating her books in the real-world of streets and pubs and it is easy to follow the routes taken by the characters as they go to the shops of visit relatives. If you know anything of the area within the triangle of Hastings, Rye and Tenterden you could enjoy tracking this story on Google Earth Street View.
As an unpaid reviewer of books, I am able to select what I want to read from a vast range of new titles, some of which I borrow or buy and others which are sent to me. With my limited time, I tend to concentrate on only those books which look promising, sometimes striking gold and sometimes being sadly disappointed. I am pleased to say that The Old Romantic will be one of my “best reads” for 2010 and I wish Louise Dean every success with this, her latest novel.
Finally, what a nice cover this book has – one Amazon reviewer commented that it makes the book look like chick-lit (which it definitely isn’t by the way). I don’t agree. I think its an excellent pictorial summary of the book: the fading sea-side town, the man in a funeral director’s clothes alone on the beach, the overflowing rubbish bin, the Eng-er-land flag hanging from a window. It just works.
Title: The Old Romantic
Author: Louise Dean
Publication: Penguin Fig Tree (August 2010), Paperback, 304 pages