A beautifully written novel about the class divide in Scotland as typified by the relationship between a 16-year old boy and 30-something-year old women.
Earlier last month Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary was nominated in the Best First Novel category for the Costa Prize. Coincidentally I’m reading the Costa Prize novel categories. So… errr… here we are.
It’s always heartening to come across a turn of phrase, a well-crafted simile on the second page of a novel:
What strikes you immediately about Montpelier Parade is that it’s written in the second person which I know, for some, is a huge no, no – all those disconcerting you and your’s. Personally, it reminds me fondly of those Choose Your Own Adventure novels I read as a kid.
Our second person point of view character is Sonny, a teenager living in Dublin in, what would appear to be, the 1980s. While working on the garden of a well-to-do house on Montpelier Parade with his Dad, he is immediately smitten when the owner, Vera, introduces herself. Sonny’s father, an inveterate gambler, despises Vera for being rich and for providing them with weak tea and shitty biscuits. Sonny, on the other hand, is enraptured by this older woman, feelings that solidify as he keeps bumping into her on the streets of Dublin. (She even buys him a bottle of wine knowing he’s underage). Is Sonny the Dustin Hoffman to Vera’s Anne Bancroft?
In the first half of the novel, there’s a great deal of pent-up-close-to-spilling-over desire on the part Sonny. He fantasises about Vera and has strong, sexual urges toward his friend Sharon who is a year older and for all her swearing and smoking and faux-edginess is clearly a bit in love with Sonny. And yet Sonny doesn’t act on his desires. In the case of Vera it’s impossible, because of the significant age difference she would appear to be out of reach. But Sharon, on the other hand, is more than willing and yet despite that Sonny holds back:
There’s something almost polite and delicate about the voice of the novel. A book where Sonny, infatuated, obsessed and wracked with desire, can stop for a moment and think about a tree that was once in the garden, a tree Sonny uprooted because it bothered his mother. It’s Sonny’s sensitive nature, which makes him older than his years, that softens the harder edges of the book:
The Gist of It
If you only read my reviews on this blog you may not be aware that I use Twitter to write my first draft. For the most part, these on the spur reactions need only a light edit. Twitter, famously, doesn’t allow you to correct errors unless you delete the entire Tweet and while I sometimes take that option mostly I leave the warts and all version for all to see. If it’s good enough for the President of America it’s good enough for me.
The problem, though, is that sometimes my initial reaction to a novel is wrong-headed, as it was with this book, Montpelier Parade. At no point was I keen on having Sonny and Vera hook up. This is because I was uncomfortable with the idea of a 30-year-old woman having sex with a 16-year old boy. Most of that discomfort game from my mistaken belief that Sonny hadn’t reached the age of consent. When I commented on the second half of the book on Twitter I described Sonny and Vera’s relationship as predatory, frustrated that this act of underage sex was being depicted as a doomed love story. Except this wasn’t a case of underage sex. Oh, it’s certainly on the margins, and the power dynamic between Vera and Sonny is out of whack because of their age difference, but no crime has been committed. I wrote that Twitter review three weeks ago and since then I’ve realised the error of my ways. The sad thing is that because I wasn’t paying attention to the question of whether Vera was manipulating Sonny or whether she, in fact, had feelings for him it’s not something I can discuss with any confidence.
What I can say, like I did on Twitter, is that Montpelier Parade is a revealing portrait of working-class life in Dublin during the 80s. The impression you get from Sonny’s journey is that any attempt to break free from the class one is born into is doomed to fail. There’s a striking moment where Sonny tells his guidance counsellor that he’d like to be a painter. She thinks he wants to paint walls, but when he clarifies and says he wants to produce art she bursts into laughter. It’s not possible for the counsellor to imagine, let alone encourage, a boy like Sonny, who happens to be in her office because he was caught stealing bike-parts, a life of creativity.
Sonny’s relationship with Vera – the beautiful older woman who lives on the right side of town – is his attempt to break free. In her he sees a better life, one that doesn’t involve his gambling father, his arsehole brothers – whom never get named – and his world-weary, frustrated, beaten mother. All of this is wonderfully handled by Geary. His prose is understated and yet evocative, and when you’re not completely misreading the nature of the novel’s key relationship what you get is a complex, layered coming of age story that focusses on the class divide in Scotland.