Monday, 3 April 2017

WIDOWS AND ORPHANS by Michael Arditti, reviewed by Adele Geras

There are certain books - you will know the sort of book I mean - which catch the light. They bring forth reams of newsprint, both real and virtual; they gather prizes; they provide pleasing controversies; they divide opinion; people notice them. There are only a few of these because there's limited space for reviews and the world of those who read reviews is a little one, although also a very pleasant one. The really HUGE books which reach millions of people are the ones which  jump a kind of imaginary barrier and are taken up by those who would ordinarily never read a book, or call themselves 'readers.' I'm thinking of  Girl on the Train or Fifty Shades of Gray or the oeuvre of Dan Brown. 

Those books, the flashy ones that make tons of money and the less flashy but very much garlanded ones which win prizes and column inches, are very few in number. The bestseller lists are instructive in many ways, but what they do not show is the less-good sellers. And these, I have often noticed, are frequently more interesting than their more glittering sisters and brothers further up the charts.

Recently, I took a train across Europe, as is my wont whenever I go on holiday. I am flying phobic and Eurostar and trains through the continent is how I get about. This is an extraordinarily pleasant way to travel and I recommend it, but this is not the place to hold forth about free croissants and lovely scenery. It takes a long time to get anywhere and Kindle comes into its own on a trip like this. The book I read in February on my way to Switzerland and for a day or so after I'd got to my hotel was Widows and Orphans by Michael Arditti. I'd read a review in the Spectator (the only review I saw)  and it sounded just up my street.

I'm not sure that this book was widely noticed. I've not seen it in bookshops. Most people on Amazon enjoyed it very much, and I liked the fact (from the blurb) that it was about a newspaper in a small English seaside town and its editor. I'm fond of books/movies/TV/anything set in the offices of a newspaper. 

Also, I'd once appeared at a reading festival at a school in London and  Michael Arditti was speaking at the same event. I caught sight of him sitting in a Green Room eating sandwiches. I've heard him on Radio 4 from time to time on Saturday Review as one of Tom Sutcliffe's guests, but I've never met him, so for once this is a review from me of a book by someone whom I don't know.  

I realised that the title had a double meaning, too, and patted myself on the back for this. 'Widows' and 'orphans' are terms in printing, as well as meaning what we all know they mean. I thought it was a very clever title. Also, I was drawn to the rather retro cover.

This is a long introduction to what I want to do, which is to recommend this wonderful and unputdownable book to all those who like novels which are about, to quote someone very close to me, "Proper people in interesting situations." 

Duncan Neville is the editor of the Francombe Mercury, the local paper in a small seaside town. The paper has been in his family for generations and he feels a proper pride in it, and the way it has explained, described and recorded the life of the town for a very long time. The paper is now under threat. Because of the internet, all newspapers are feeling nervous. People no longer get their news in this old-fashioned way and Duncan is beleaguered. He's divorced from his wife. His ex-wife has married again and had a daughter, who is disabled. He has a teenage son, too, who gets into teenage-type trouble. His mother lives in the town and she's quite a character. He is friendly with the gay vicar. His enemy, Geoffrey Weedon,  from way back in his schooldays, is a rich, rather vulgar entrepreneurial type, who has always looked down on Duncan, even though Duncan is a much better person.

When Francombe Pier is burned to the ground, Weedon has a plan to open it again as a kind of adult entertainment centre: a sort of sex emporium on stilts. He has the Planning Committee in his pocket, according to some. Opposition to this plan forms one strand of the plot, but there are so many others that it's hard to list them all. Above all, it's Duncan's journey through a turbulent time in his life. We meet his close friends, his colleagues, his mother, and the woman he grows to love. I will not spoil anyone's fun by revealing the end, but it's a novel in which every single character is carefully taken account of. Arditti is interested in the life of the town, in the way the newspaper deals with 'all human life' and he structures the book brilliantly by starting each chapter with an extract from the newspaper itself. This means that by the end, we, too, have grown fond of this publication.

It's written straightforwardly, in plain language, with no posturing, no faux lyricism and this means that the emotional punch of the things that happen to the characters is all the stronger. We get to know and love Duncan through the book, and we are desperately wanting a good outcome for both him and his paper. 

If I were a bookshop, I'd stick a label on the cover saying: satisfaction or your money back, or some such. Please get in touch with this blog on Twitter if you read it and hate it. I'm betting that  almost everyone who picks it up and starts it will love it and thank me for putting them in touch with this brilliant writer who is  not sufficiently appreciated.

Widows and Orphans is published in paperback by Arcadia Books at £8.99. ISBN: 1910050644

1 comment:

  1. Any book that has a villain called Geoffrey Weedon is bound to be terrific. I shall put it on my tbr list at once!