What should they know of England?
August 20, 2011 § 2 Comments
Father of Emily – Kristofer Oliver
Paperback £9.13 ($15.00) ISBN 9781463660253
Kindle £2.93 ($3.99)
To see your country and your countrymen as they really are, you have to leave them behind. That was Kipling’s view, at any rate. In this moving novel Kristofer Oliver takes the advice of the master story-teller.
Ben is an ex-pat living in Paris, having fled there at the end of a traumatic relationship. Several years on the new, if rather rootless life he has built for himself is turned upside down by the arrival of Emily, 14-year-old daughter of his former partner. The narrative traces the growth of their relationship, not-really father with not-quite daughter, and gradually unravels the mystery surrounding Emily’s unconventional mother Clara.
Oliver comes from the north of England, but he has lived in France “amongst smelly cheese and fresh coffee” since 2003. Eight years is enough for some of it to rub off. This is not a travel guide. The Eiffel Tower and Montmartre make brief appearances, but his default view is from pavement level: cafés and shops, traffic and the Metro. Locations are blocked in with a sense of familiarity, just enough to give freshness and lift.
The same goes for the writing. I would guess that Oliver has been in France for long enough to start thinking in the language. Once or twice there are hints of a Gallic turn of phrase: meeting Emily’s grandmother after a long absence, Ben thinks There are some many years Elizabeth and I have to catch up on… Sometimes this gives the prose a slightly bumpy quality; generally, though, the effect is to strip it down to essentials. The first person voice is clear and direct:
I can’t remember the time from when I first plucked up the courage to ask her out for a drink, to the time when I understood her when she was brushing her teeth in the morning. We fell into a partnership instead of a relationship. We were coupled from the start. I remember a day when we both came home separately from the rental shop with the same video.
Like the locations, the characters are fresh and convincing, particularly the trio at the centre of the story. Emily is a delightful mix of teenage savvy, edging towards adulthood, and childlike innocence. Her mother Clara, seen in flashback, has a convincing rawness, someone not built to stand up to the blunt instrument of everyday life. Even minor characters are “there” on the page. Ben’s latest girlfriend Sarah, leaving as Emily arrives, takes advantage of a difficult phone call to scoot round their flat and pack a few extra items:
Sarah picks up the iPod she bought me for my last birthday, mouths ‘mine now’ and places it in her pocket.
The two important relationships in the novel – between Ben and Emily and between Ben and Clara – are both rich and satisfyingly ambiguous. There is none of that irritating sense you get from some books that the narrator knows the whole story from the beginning, but is perversely keeping the reader in the dark. Ben discovers Emily, but through her he also rediscovers Clara.
Father of Emily has the contemporary charm and honesty of One Day. Like Nicholls, Oliver has an intimate grip on the minutiae of modern life – the wine and the chocolate, the bedclothes and the luggage. His characters’ dilemmas are not philosophically profound, but we recognise every detail of their bafflement faced with love and tragedy. The difference is that they live in Paris.
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