Fay Weldon applauds a second novel that fulfils the promise of its predecessor
Writing a second novel is a nervy business for a writer, especially when the first one has been unexpectedly and wonderfully successful, as was Catherine O’Flynn’s debut What Was Lost, which went on to win the 2008 Costa first novel and a cluster of other awards. But O’Flynn need not be nervous. Her second novel, The News Where You Are, establishes her as, let’s say, the JG Ballard of Birmingham. As Ballard dealt with the landscape of the motorway and made it his own, so O’Flynn deals with her particular city, finding poetry and meaning where others see merely boredom and dereliction. It is a most moving book. Lightly flinging a joke or two in the reader’s direction, a snatch or so of knowledgeable brightness, O’Flynn comes across as the mistress of compassion. To better sing the song of the normally unsung she deals in subtext, in the irony of events, in the archetypal, to great effect, so that the book gains a kind of driving energy, as if the lonely dead of the city’s past and present were determined to be heard.
O’Flynn is particularly good on old age and the consolations of helplessness. “His hearing aid is invisible, his need to piss every half hour easily covered up, but his hands dangle there at the end of his arms for all to see [. . .] He wonders why cosmetic surgery is never offered for hands. He stares at them until they seem entirely alien to him; two lumps of bone and gristle lying on a purple velvet cushion.”
O’Flynn’s protagonist is Frank, a presenter of Midlands TV regional news, noted for his bad jokes and lack of ambition. It is his habit to attend the funerals, often as the sole mourner, of those who have died alone and lain undiscovered for days, weeks, even months, but who win by their deaths a brief mention in the local news. He feels it is his duty to note their passing, even if no one else will. He is a good man, content to be one of the “future people” envisaged in his father’s architectural drawings, dotted about in paradisiacal landscapes, figures with featureless faces. Lego people.
Frank’s father was an architect who neglected his family to build the new Jerusalem in Birmingham, which the ungrateful city now tears down, just as in his turn Frank’s father once demolished the city’s Victorian heritage. “The past has gone, the future is yet to come, and what remains is a stalled present,” Frank observes, as he sees schemes for new developments redrawn or scrapped altogether as grand designs for the future are whittled away, dreams always defeated by cold reality.
There are vivid portraits here: the failed joke-writer, Frank’s trusting daughter, the female TV presenters, obsessed by age. Most strikingly Frank’s mother, meanly urging her dutiful son not to visit, as he stubbornly insists on doing. And on a visit to a tea shop:
“What anyone else might consider heart warming, the sight of an elderly couple enjoying each other’s company and a slice of fruit cake, would invite scorn from Maureen. ‘Look at them! Bored out of their minds. Nothing to say [. . .] Why aren’t they screaming?'”
There is a plot of sorts – who killed Frank’s predecessor, the famous one, whom old age was about to conquer had not a hit-and-run driver got him just in time? – but it’s a wispy kind of plot, and suspense hardly matters in this blend of Dickens and Alan Bennett, written in the kind of stripped-down, flat style that so suits its time and place. I loved it, and am haunted by it. While What Was Lost benefited from the existence of an actual child ghost, forever vanishing round the corners of a shopping mall – which was the reality, that product of the human imagination the mall, or the ghost? – this book is set in a less metaphorical, less fanciful world, but it has equal power. If you can write two good novels you can write another and another and another: I am sure O’Flynn will and I look forward to them.
Fay Weldon’s Chalcot Crescent is published by Corvus.