It’s only the end of January and you’ve probably already had your fill of family get togethers. Unless that is, you’re me. We missed out on our annual Christmas family get together this year as the arrival of my sister’s third baby got in the way but we do have another eleven months to correct that, to include: regular Sunday lunch at Mum’s and each of our houses, a Christening for my new nephew and a family wedding in London. I will hopefully try to get to see my wife’s parents, all four of them, at some stage of the year either in Lincolnshire or Nottinghamshire, The Sherwooder’s might come to Ireland too. As for a family a get together for all of them. it’s complicated as they say, but aren’t all families in some respect?
The author, Robert Brault, once said, ‘what greater blessing to give thanks for at a family gathering, than the family and the gathering...’ He’s obviously never been to a gathering of the family in this month’s third book review. The book is Midland by James Flint and published by Unbound (www.unbound.com) on the 24th January.
Alex Wold is a hard-nosed City of London stock trader, who sees the ‘soft’ Britain of 1918-1978 (from the end of the First World War to the rise of Thatcher) as ‘an anomaly’. Nevertheless, the book opens with Alex, perhaps dis-oriented by the imminent birth of his second child, plunging into the Thames to try to help a beached whale to find its way to sea. We soon learn that his extremely expensive suit was ruined in vain, and his reassurances to his son prove hollow, when the whale dies. Shortly after he hears of the death of his mother’s ex-husband Tony Nolan from a heart attack.
Alex must now prepare to face both sides of the family, as the Nolans and the Wolds have had a difficult few years behind them, but maybe this is the ideal opportunity Alex has been looking for to lay the ghosts of the past.
The book centres on a ‘home-coming’ of two families who had grown up side-by-side. Now adults, they had been linked in many and complex ways but had been scattered for even more complex reasons. Tony was the father of one of the grown-up families. He is also the former husband of Margaret Wold, whose ‘children’ from her second marriage come home to give her some moral support. Tony has attracted some admirers from both families, and repelled others, with his dodgy but successful dealings in financial derivatives and his domineering personality.
Reuniting in their home town allows for the gradual re-emergence of old grudges, suppressed passions, friendships and suspicions. As readers, we are gradually let into some of the backstories of the two families
As the funeral comes closer, the plots multiply. We follow Tony’s hippie runaway son bumming his way around Caribbean beaches, until he gets enticed into a drug ring which is bigger than he can handle. But why did he leave in the first place?
We share the frustrations of another member of the Nolan clan, who sees herself as a serious journalist but is constantly put on trivial celebrity-watch. We feel her anger as she is undermined and bullied out of her job by her ambitious new assistant. There are also hints of a complex web of love affairs between the ‘children’ of the two families in the past, including a deep and sincere but incestuous relationship between half-siblings.
For me, these little sub-plots make the book worth-while and give flesh to the only slightly intriguing who-slept-with-who? mystery which drives the story towards the end.
Some of the sub-plots are not much more than throw-aways. One little half-page insight into the daily life of a trader concerns one of Alex Wold’s early experiences. He was worried by a news item about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, where he has invested heavily in steel futures. An older hand says: ‘don’t worry, just check what rice is doing’. Alex checks, and finds ‘no movement’. The old hand replies ‘exactly – no war’. The logic was that Chinese leaders would know that an invasion of Taiwan would lead to foreign sanctions. If they planned to go to war, they would therefore be buying up and stockpiling foreign rice, leading to a rise in prices.
As the story goes on, the younger generation begin to learn the secrets of each other’s love-lives, mostly with each other. What they find more shocking are the hints emerging about their parents’ love lives. As someone said of the 1960s: ‘every generation thinks they have invented sex and are disturbed when they find that their parents got there before them’.
The characters cover a wide range of English Midlands middle-class life. They are well rounded and avoid too many obvious stereotypes.
This is English author James Flints fourth book. His others are Habituis (1998), 52 Ways To Magic America (2002) and The book of Ash (2004) . Flint wrote Midland in installments and performed a chapter each year at the Port Eliot festival in St Germans in Cornwall. He started his working life as an apprenticeship on the Times of India Newspaper in New Delhi, before going on to study Philosophy in Oxford.
Midland is a well-crafted tapestry of little vignettes, if I can mix my metaphors as freely as Flint mixes his story-lines. James Flint is a superb story-teller with a good eye for character. One to watch. So get down to your local bookshop and order a copy, or download it to your e-reader.
Reviewed by Robin Hanan
This book review is part of a Random Things Blog Tour, below you’ll find a list of the other bloggers who reviewed it. Go visit their sites and see what they thought. Then once you’ve read the the book, go back and see if you agree and even you don’t leave a message saying why.