For the most part, Aldous and Colette Jones (and their children) are the definition of ordinary — he is a North London school teacher, she a stay-at-home wife. They have two children when August opens; two more arrive during the 15-year span of that novel. Author Woodward’s speciality, however, is to occasionally add very distinct elements of the absurd to the story to give it both spice and depth. For example, the first novel opens with Aldous at the end of a four-day bicycle trip from London to Wales: he is scouting for a location for the family’s summer holiday and much of the “action” of the novel will take place at the farm in Llanygwynfa that he discovers to which the family will return each summer. That trip of discovery is by no means the only strange departure from the ordinary in the Jones’ family life, but it serves as a handy warning of a device the author will employ as the book progresses.
Another important example of Woodward’s device is the glue-sniffing addiction that Colette develops one summer while on holiday: attracted by the smell of the glue from a bicycle tyre repair kit, she samples it and soon develops a full-scale habit that influences much of what occurs in the latter half of the novel.
I’ll Go To Bed At Noon opens some years after the first novel ended, but some things have not changed. Indeed, self-medication/substance abuse is a trait that will effect not only most of the Joneses as the novel progresses, it is a character flaw shared by many members of their extended family as well, a near universal response to the boredom of commonness or the stresses of even minor disruptions to the established routine. The normal Jones’ approach to a crisis is to see if it can be drunk away.
Colette and Aldous are preparing to attend the funeral of her sister-in-law as this novel begins, but Woodward wastes no time in introducing that element. Colette has abandoned her glue-sniffing habit, but replaced it with an equally strong addiction to Gold Label Barley Wine (for North American readers, “barley wine” is the English equivalent of malt liquor, a high alcohol beer):
Colette poured the Gold Label into a glass, where it fizzed half-heartedly, her second of the day. Colette had taken to this tipple recently, initially as a sedative, to reinforce the ever-weakening effect of her sleeping pills. She would drink two or three glasses in the evening, then take four or five Nembutals (the recommended dose was two), which would despatch her to a deep, dreamless sleep for eight hours. The problem was that awakening was a long, slow, painful struggle. She woke as if from a pit of glue, always with a pounding headache, the only cure for which, she soon found, was a morning glass of barley wine. One of those and she was near instantly awake and fresh. A sedative in the evening, a pick-me-up in the morning. Barley wine was her wonder-drink.
The substance may have changed, but Colette is as much an abuser as ever. And the Jones’ eldest son, Janus, is an apple that has fallen not far from the family tree. His parents are not sure if he will turn up for the impending funeral (probably not) but they are certainly hoping not. Both recall his drunken performance a few years earlier at a cousin’s wedding: “…the trampled-on wedding cake, the shattered bouquets, the drenched, sobbing bridesmaids.”
Janus’ on-going problems will feature prominently in the novel, as will those of the husband of the woman who is being buried, Colette’s brother Janus Brian (the namesake for her son — the Joneses retroactively added his middle name to distinguish the two). While the death of his wife will send Janus Brian into his own alcoholism, he had his own distinctive trait even earlier: despite living only a mile away, the only time he ever visited Colette was to announce the imminence of his own death:
It had happened several times, usually as a result of reading some health article or other, that Janus Brian would discover symptoms in himself of a fatal disease. Now she couldn’t even remember what it had been. An innocent pimple, wart, or pedunculated polyp. A benign confusion of cells. A temporary thinning of the blood. As with most hypochondriacs, however, Janus Brian remained annoyingly free of real illness.
That excerpt comes from our introduction to Janus Brian — like his namesake, his story will also be explored in detail. Indeed, it offers an example of why I find Woodward a difficult author to review: while there is continuing story line in the three novels of his that I have read (Nourishment, a non-Jones novel, is the other), the author develops them by extensively exploring sub-plots, using these almost like building blocks to construct the complete work.
Janus and Janus Brian’s lives are only a couple of those Woodward uses here: readers also will experience the woes of another of Colette’s brothers (who, no surprise, also turns into an alcoholic), not to mention the stories of her three other children.
I thoroughly enjoyed both August and Nourishment — as well as this novel — but that endorsement comes with a caveat. To appreciate Woodward, the reader must be willing to go with his flow. For me, all of the Joneses (both nuclear and extended family) became characters of interest and, despite their refuge in substance abuse, some empathy. I can understand, however, why some would find them grating — and if they grate as individuals, some of the author’s unlikely plot twists could become downright annoying. Woodward is definitely not for everyone, but he hits the right chords with me.
I’d still say, however, that you need to read August before taking on I’ll Go To Bed At Noon. It is a much less intense book so developing an affinity for the characters is a much easier process — there are times in this novel, when that reservoir of affinity is a prerequisite to appreciating what is happening here. If you didn’t like August, or even had a “meh” response to it, I’d give this book a miss. On the other hand, if you came from that novel with at least some empathy for the Joneses (especially Colette), Woodward continues to build on it here. The details that I have cited make it seem more depressing than it is — Woodward has a lot of humor to him, but it isn’t the kind that can easily be captured in a review.
As a fan, I’ll certainly be reading volume three of the trilogy (A Curious Earth) but I suspect it will likely be some months before I feel up to the challenge — like Gold Label Barley Wine, my experience says Woodward is best experienced with a disciplined approach to consumption.