Author, Book review, England, Fiction, literary fiction, Louise Dean, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Old Romantic’ by Louise Dean


Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 292 pages; 2011.

Louise Dean’s The Old Romantic couldn’t be more different — in tone, subject and style — than the last novel of hers that I read, the brilliant but oh-so bleak This Human Season (2006), which was set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of The Troubles and explored the political divide.

The Old Romantic is right at the other end of the spectrum: it’s a warm-hearted comedy set in on the south-east coast of England and is one of those lovely novels that you eat up in a day or two and feel all the better for having done so.

Grumpy old man

The story is essentially about the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of one family headed by the cantankerous Ken Goodyew — the “old romantic” of the title — who has become slightly obsessed by his own death. Ken is retired and lives in Hastings, a rundown coastal town in East Sussex, with his second wife, June.

When the book opens he has just been reunited with his eldest son, Nick, a solicitor, for the first time in 15 years at a hastily convened lunch with the extended family. You know things are not going to bode well for the newly established relationship when Ken announces that he has decided to leave all his worldly goods to his younger son, Dave — and that he wants Nick to draw up the will.

His marriage to June also looks to be on the rocks when he announces — just a few minutes later — that he also wants Nick to sort out a divorce. “I don’t want her lot, June’s family, to get their hands on a penny of it, see?” he says, while June sits there and does her best to ignore him.

Working class hero

From this fateful lunch, Dean spins a simple tale about Ken and the ways in which his actions, both past and present, impinge on his two wives and his two children. He is wilfully ignorant, marvellously grumpy and blatantly proud of his working class roots. I loved that all his dialogue is written phonetically, so he sounds like a London cab driver, and that almost everything that comes out of his mouth is appallingly rude or appallingly funny.

But even though Ken is the central character around which everything else tends to revolve, the book devotes equal attention to Nick and the ways in which he has spent his entire life trying to escape his humble beginnings — and his father’s overbearing shadow. That he changed his name from Gary, that he decided to study law, that he goes on holiday to exotic locations abroad, all speak of his desire to reinvent himself as a middle-class “somebody”.

His relationship with younger brother Dave — his polar opposite — is beautifully fleshed out, too, and you get a real sense of their sibling rivalries, tensions, contradictions — and love.

Other standout characters include Astrid, Nick’s beauty-parlour girlfriend obsessed with her looks and staying young, and Audrey, the business-like 40-something undertaker, whom Ken falls in love with — until she shows him the delicate and specialised art of embalming.

Comedy of manners

The Old Romantic is a wonderfully witty read that showcases Dean’s ability to write funny set pieces. But she’s also very good at developing drama, constructing believable dialogue and fleshing out back stories without losing that all-important narrative tension that keeps the reader turning the pages. The plot might be lean, but it’s the characters and the exploration of life, death and family which makes it rather special.

I loved this book and laughed out loud quite a lot, although I must admit that part of the enjoyment came from knowing that much of it was set in areas with which I am familiar. Indeed, I read this while on holiday in East Sussex, just a stone’s throw from Rye where much of the action takes place.

But even if you don’t know these places, there is much to enjoy in this rather fine comedy of manners.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Louise Dean, Northern Ireland, Publisher, Scribner, Setting

‘This Human Season’ by Louise Dean


Fiction – paperback; Scribner; 320 pages; 2006.

Louise Dean’s This Human Season is set in Belfast in 1979, at the height of The Troubles. Republican prisoners being held in The Maze are mid-way through their “dirty protest” in which they spread their excrement on the walls and refuse to wear clothes. Public support for their demand to be treated as political prisoners, rather than criminals, is building on the outside. Talk of hunger strikes isn’t that far away.

Dean gives voice to both sides of the political divide by splitting her rather ambitious second novel into two narratives told in alternate chapters. The first revolves around Kathleen Moran, a Catholic mother of four, whose eldest son, 19-year-old Sean, is locked up in Long Kesh, while the second, has John Dunn, a former British soldier of 22 years standing, now working inside the prison as a guard.

This even-handed approach serves to highlight the human tragedies at the heart of this brutal and bloody conflict. Kathleen, struggling to come to terms with Sean’s imprisonment, is at her wit’s end trying to keep her husband sober and her younger son out of trouble with the law. As she helps neighbours and friends pick up the fragments of their shattered lives, who will be there to pick up hers?

Meanwhile, John, struggling to put his military past behind him, finds that the high wages he earns as a prison officer come at a price, including the fact that wearing the uniform marks him out as a potential terrorist target. As he withdraws further and further into himself, his relationship with long-term girlfriend Angie is tested to the limit.

Despite the unrelenting bleakness of the character’s personal predicaments, Dean offers up much dark-edged humour to lighten the load. Her descriptions, her dialogue are pitch-perfect. The scenes in the prison are particularly good (particularly the banter between guards) and feel so authentic you can practically smell the stench of urine and excrement rising off the page. I especially liked this passage, in which John, working the night shift, patrols the prison:

After he closed the second grille once more, the voices started pitter-patter here and there, now in English, now in Irish. There was something ghostly about it; it was like listening to the voices of men who’d died together, trapped in the hull of a boat or in a building on fire, hundreds of years ago. He couldn’t hear what was being said, just heard the shimmering sibilance of their voices. Even though he was warmly dressed, it was too cold to nod off. It was no wonder they talked into the night, the low voice next door comforting like a coal fire.

Dean is also very good at encapsulating the senselessness of the conflict. Here’s how John describes his love of Northern Ireland to an Englishman who asks him about it:

It is a different country, that’s the first thing you have to get straight. To be honest with you, I’ve got a lot of time for the Catholics. The decent ones. Not the IRA. Although you see their discipline when you work in the prison. Anyway, I like it here, I like that it’s a hard place. England’s not for me, it’s all white bread and keeping the lawn trimmed. I like the people here, for the most part. Some of them are bastards — but you get that everywhere.

Girlfriend Angie is not quite as tolerant:

There’s a lot of fear amongst the Loyalist people that the Catholics will overrun the place. They have six or seven kids, whereas we have the one or two. They don’t want to be British but they’re not above taking the welfare. They’re good at giving to their own, I’ll grant them that, better than we are, everyone round here is for himself. But we don’t want to live their way, and why should we? People don’t want nuns and priests running their lives, teaching their children. Just because a person wants a united Ireland doesn’t make him more Irish than me. You see the difference is we’re happy with our lot. We’ve got our own ways here in Ulster. What we have here, and it’s not very much, we’ve worked for, so we have. Why should we give it away? Let them go down south if that’s what they’re after.

What I admire most about this book is Dean’s clear-eyed ability to reveal the human angle of The Troubles rather than concentrate on the politics of the situation. She never glorifies the violence or takes sides. Perhaps her own background — she is English, middle-class and lives in France — has helped her look at events with an outsider’s cool objectivity.

It makes for a hugely absorbing and intelligent read, one that lingers in the mind and forces you to think about all sides of the debate. It’s dark, disturbing and absolutely heart-breaking in places. Admittedly, I found it a bit of a slow burner but eventually the atmosphere of this book enveloped me to the point that I thought about it whenever I put it down and couldn’t wait to pick it back up again.

Louise Dean’s first novel, Becoming Strangers, won the Betty Task Prize in 2004 and was longlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year. This Human Season, while critically acclaimed, doesn’t seem to have garnered any awards, which is a shame, because this is a truly brilliant novel, intelligently told and one that shows a very human side to a war that raged for 30 years.