In the early examples, it is true that those families tend to come from either the landed gentry (or those close to it) or the abject poor — although cautionary tales about those who futilely dream of rising above their station do represent a significant subset. Post World War II, however, the device acquired another thread — the middle-class dysfunctional family (usually located outside London) and the strains, both internal and external, that it faced became a popular model.
Louise Dean’s The Old Romantic is ample indication that the device is alive and well as the 21st century gets under way. The opening of her novel pays an oblique homage to the form:
People seem to tumble down to Hastings and not get up to go home again. It’s where they turn up, every Jack and Jill that never fell out with family, lost a job, had half an idea, got a bad habit. The town is a huddle of administrative towers and down-at-heel shops with their backs turned on the sea views.
Poor Hastings. The steam train once chuffed proudly into Warrior Square, where the statue of the Empress of India stood with her hooded eyes on the sea. The minor royals played here for a season, the gentry’s carriages drew up at the West Hill lift, the bourgeois bought villas in St Leonards. But now the Olympic-sized bathing pool is gone, the model town vandalized and the pier closed. Rock candy congeals in cellophane under blow heaters, and steel udders drop soft whip in souvenir shops. In the tuppenny arcade, on any given day of the week, there’ll be an old man feeling for change in the trays.
I’ll confess that Dean had me hooked with that opening: my knowledge of Hastings is confined to it being the WWII setting for the incredibly good television series Foyle’s War (which would be on my shortlist of “best television ever”, but I digress). Clearly, this is not Foyle’s Hastings. The fact that the television production could find an old town that is a definition of charm indicates that not all of handsome Hastings has slipped into distant memory — Dean wastes little time in showing that a lot of the surrounding area has. Here is her introduction to the area, seen through the eyes of Nick Goodyew, one of two middle-aged sons in the dysfunctional family whose troubled relations are the core of The Old Romantic:
This is not his town; this is his father’s town. This is not coming home. He did that when he moved back to the Weald, where two counties meet in hills and valleys, in a hinterland of hop bine and tractor track, whiteboard cottage and oast house, fruit field and orchard. That morning when he walked the dog, with woodsmoke forming halos above the dwellings, the countryside of his childhood seemed primitive to him — with no tarmac, no pylon, no telephone mast visible at all. Walking brings back memories. He likes to potter into the past and nip into the future, the way the dog moves, a waggy-tailed waverer on the scent of something good and aware too of other pleasures all about.
Nick, a family law solicitor (read “divorce”), is the elder son of the family, estranged for decades from his father Ken who is now 79. Those memories come to mind as he and his common-law wife, Astrid, are pulling up at Ken’s house. Ken, even grumpier now than in memory, has recently “re-opened” family relationships with a series of abusive phone calls — Nick’s younger brother, Dave, has set up a post-Christmas luncheon as an opening attempt to get the family back together.
‘God Almighty,’ Nick says to Astrid now, peeping at his father’s house, humourous and rueful, ‘I did mention to you that my father was a touch working class, didn’t I?’
‘Perchance’ is the name painted onto a cross section of a log varnished and tacked to the guttering over the front door of the bungalow. The front garden is concrete. The other houses have two-foot-high walls for decency’s sake but his has been demolished. Weeds have sprung up in the cracks of the forecourt. There’s a lean-to shelter outside the bungalow, with a corrugated yellow plastic roof and under it is a tall set of shelves stack with various plastic bottles, some with their heads cut off: cooking oil, window cleaner, plant food. There is a decrepit Christmas tree in a pot, and an old Queen Anne wing-backed chair bearing a large string bag of onions.
They sit there with the engine running. She turns the bracelets on her wrist. ‘Grim,’ she says lightly.
Let us allow Astrid to set the stage for the family reunion. The front door of the bungalow opens and Nick’s father and step-mother emerge: ‘She is red-faced and merry; he is pale and disdainful.’ ‘Oh, shit me, it’s the Krankies!’ says Astrid.
It would not be your traditional family roast lunch, she thinks, but then it hadn’t been your traditional Christmas call that got this particular ball rolling. She’d amused their friends with it all on Boxing Day in the pub.
‘I couldn’t believe it! I mean, call me old-fashioned but in our family we have turkey and stuffing on Christmas Day and a call from Auntie Jan in Portsmouth. So there we are, paper hats on, about to pour gravy and the phone goes, and Laura [Astrid's pre-pubescent daughter] is like, who’s Nick on the phone to? And I’m like, It’s his dad, darling, he’s just wishing him a merry Christmas. And the next thing you hear from the conservatory is Nick screaming, And you’re nothing to me either, you old bastard!’
For Nick, the post-holiday roast lunch is a return to the surroundings of his childhood. The driving force of the novel, however, is a different kind of return: Ken’s retreat into a real-time version of childhood, brought on by a futile attempt to delay, or perhaps accept, his approaching end.
The conflicts developed in this narrative stream will be familiar to anyone who has read previous novels featuring dysfunctional families so I’ll ignore them here. There are not a lot of surprises but there is a wealth of wonderful set pieces. Ken, for example, has been filling in time by helping out at the local funeral home which provides the stage for a number. Father and sons take a motor trip to Wales, chasing Dad’s current wife who is eager to escape him. And there is a wonderful scene where the family thinks he has died — it turns out that it was just a very intense forty winks but it takes a while to discover that.
I had read good things about The Old Romantic but would have given it a pass were it not for the novel’s appearance at the top of Tony’s Book World’s 2011 best list (his review is here). Tony’s previous year-end lists have put me on to some genuine finds (he introduced me to Maile Meloy for which I will always be grateful) so that was recommendation enough. Tony describes The Old Romantic as a novel that has “a wicked joy with the meanest and sharpest dialogue of the year” — the quotes I have used illustrate Dean’s descriptive abilities, so dialogue lovers have much to look forward to in the book itself.
I didn’t rate the novel quite as highly as Tony did, but it was genuine entertainment from start to finish. And I’ll admit that the next time we load Foyle’s War into the DVD player (and we will be doing that soon, I assure you) I will be looking at Hastings and surroundings through an entirely different set of eyes.