Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Light Reading


Like most bloggers who review books, I make it a rule only to review ones I admire, like or – the absolute gold standard – both like and admire. It’s therefore great – and a great relief – when people you know personally have managed to write a novel which you can write about with as much pleasure and enthusiasm as I’m going to write about the book I’ve just read. The fact that it’s by another MNW writer is simply an added bonus. [There will be MNW books which I simply don’t mention here. Whether I have neither liked nor admired them, or whether I have simply not got around to reading them yet, you’ll never know…It’s why I don’t post a ‘currently reading’ list. Cunning eh?]
Anyway, on with the review.

It’s so well known amongst my reading-buddies as to be a joke that if, at page 60 in any given book, I would quite happily see all the characters mown down by a machine gun, I stop reading said book. You see, I get involved with characters – I have to like the people I’m reading about.
Or so I thought until I read Aliya Whiteley’s Light Reading. Her main character, Pru Green is not a likeable person. She seems to go out of her way to be unkind, even – or possibly especially – to her best friend, Lena. I’m always telling my children people who are that unkind are usually deeply unhappy and – hah, I do like being right! – so it proves in Pru’s case. But I’m getting ahead of myself….

So, given that she is unpleasant, and Lena’s not much better, why did I not only read beyond page 60 but scurry through the whole thing?
Because Aliya Whiteley has written a highly successful book. A highly enjoyable book. A book which must have been horribly difficult to pull off. Because I think black comedy is difficult to pull off. I mean, is it just me or is 99% of ‘black comedy’ actually just groanably bad comedy about stuff people don’t (shouldn’t?) actually find funny? Neither funny nor really black, it usually just feels as if it’s missed the mark, only with added misery.
But Light Reading is that rarest of beasts, a truly good black comedy. It’s funny. And it’s pretty dark, both in terms of the mystery at its heart, and the psychology of the two central characters. Not to mention Allcombe and pretty much every resident thereof. Not for nothing does the strapline on the Panmacmillan site say ‘Welcome to Britain’s most sinister seaside resort.’

Aliya says (can’t remember where, but either on her blog or when I met her in Cambridge) that she finds it difficult to reconcile herself to Light Reading being classed as a crime novel. And it’s not by any means bog standard crime fiction. Think Rosemary and Thyme meet Edgar Allen Poe. With bad detecting.

Has Aliya set out consciously to subvert the genre? (Cool, v. professional writer-type question, huh?) I don’t think so as I very much get the impression that this novel is entirely character driven. In fact, if you read the interview with Aliya over on the Macmillan New Writers blog here, she says that she wrote the book around Pru, who started out as a character in a short story called Spitting Wasps (ouch, you really wouldn’t want to be Pru’s boyfriend – check it out) and created Lena as her foil.
And she’s created a brilliant double-act. You don’t just want to uncover the mystery at the heart of the book (did child star Crystal Tynee really commit suicide and, if so, how does it relate to the deaths of both her grandmother and her mother’s cat?) you want to uncover the mystery of Pru. Why is she as she is?
You know why Lena is who she is – she’s into self-analysis and analysis of others, she tells you the whole time. But Pru has about as much to say on the subject of her past as your average garden slug.

I wonder – has Aliya managed to pull off the black comedy thing because sci-fi/fantasy writers always look at life from slightly left field? They’re always thinking of what’s beneath the real, the ordinary, the given, and wondering what life is – or could be – really like?

In the interview on the MNWriters’ site, Aliya says of Light Reading ‘Mainly it's about sex and death. Actually, it's completely about sex and death.’ And it is. But it’s also about female friendship.
How not to do it is shown quite clearly by the self-serving hypocrisy of the RAF wives with their utterly grim, depressingly aimless, gin-drinking, cake-eating and back-stabbing. But what might be possible is shown in the Pru ‘n’ Lena double act; what their friendship might have become had Pru been able to accept Lena’s clumsy but heartfelt offering of genuine understanding is glimpsed in one of the darkest scenes in the book.

There are crimes in Light Reading (why it’s called Light Reading is the only question I was left with at the end of the book – I have a nasty suspicion that I’m being thick and that the answer is really obvious) but that doesn’t mean that it’s a crime book.
Detecting (of a highly dubious quality) takes place but that doesn’t make LR detective fiction.
There is the aforementioned sex and death – but it’s not erotic. In fact the sex in LR is quite deliberately and magnificently unerotic. Boy George’s famous line ‘I’d prefer a nice cup of tea’ springs to mind as never before.
What Light Reading is is a highly successful novel, written with a light touch but deep understanding, about people.
The events may pull you along, but it’s the people who make you want to know what happened.


Great book.

1 comment:

KAREN CLARKE said...

Sounds brilliant - can't wait to try it :o)