MORE often than not big fat novels are easy reads. England’s Lane isn’t, though it gallops along in a pell-mell hectic style that demands close attention.
England’s Lane by Joseph Connolly
Quercus, 422pp, £18.99
The novel is written in different voices. Much of it is interior monologue, and Connolly switches from one voice to another abruptly and quite often without any indication of the change. It’s way of writing a novel he has made his own, and it is very effective.
There are many attractive things about Connolly’s novels. He treats his characters affectionately, for the most part, but without sentimentality. They mostly belong to the lower-middle class often ignored in modern novels. They are people for whom respectability is important. England’s Lane – somewhere in North London – is well supplied with small shops, and the novels concentrates on three of them and the shopkeepers’ families. These are: Jim and Milly; Jim is an ironmonger, his shop a terrible mess; Stan, confectioner and tobacconist, whose wife Janey has become a recluse; the butcher Jonathan, whose elaborate manners and lordly diction suggest at first that he has come down in the world, and his wife Fiona. There is a child in each of these households: Paul, Milly’s nephew and adopted son; Stan’s boy Anthony, crippled by polio; and Jonathan’s pretty daughter, Amanda.
Milly speaks first and tells us that she is a capable woman, though we soon find that she lives much of the time in a dream world, which may lead us to doubt whether she is as capable as she says she is. She married beneath her. That was during the war – it is now 1959 – and she married Jim for reasons she can’t now remember.
She has never enjoyed sex with him and rather despises him for his scruffy appearance, poor manners and vulgarity. Paul, whom she adores, views his uncle with even sharper contempt. Jim resents this, but endures it, because he loves his “Mill”; he finds solace in communing with his budgerigar, Cyril. Connolly gradually shows us that there is more to Jim than Milly and Paul suppose, though his early monologues may leads us to share their opinion. The development of Jim is pleasingly and subtly done.
Stan, poor Stan, is a mess; and no wonder. His wife has withdrawn from life. She never, apparently, leaves her bedroom, and never touches the cups of tea and meals he brings her several times every day. Stan cares devotedly for her and for their crippled son. Otherwise he witters on about his stock of sweets and chocolates; After Eights, he tells a confectionery rep, will surely never take off – too much competition in that line and the name is no good. Clearly his judgement is not to be trusted, and Stan himself seems to be heading for a breakdown of some sort.
There are secrets in all these families and the secrets in the butcher’s are the darkest. Connolly takes a risk with him. The other inhabitants of England’s Lane all belong in that milieu, and their back-stories are utterly convincing. Jonathan is different. One may have no difficulty in recognising him as belonging to a type – the shopkeeper who gives the impression of thinking himself a cut above his business. It is not surprising that he is a womaniser, and a rather nasty one. But when he discloses his past in a series of monologues and displays ruthlessness, the reader may be taken aback, and even think he belongs to a different sort of novel.
Yet Connolly inhabits his creation so surely that the improbable is made convincing. On reflection indeed one may conclude that Jonathan’s story is not after all out of keeping with the mood of the novel and the ambience of England’s Lane.
Respectable lower-middle class enclaves of society have often has their dark and grisly secrets; one thinks perhaps of that house of horrors, 10 Rillington Place. So, bizarre as Jonathan’s story is, one can accept it.
There is comedy in the novel. Connolly started out as a writer of frothy comic novels, and has written a study of Wodehouse and a biography of Jerome K Jerome. He remains essentially a comic novelist, but one whose work has its dark, even sinister, side. He is, however, affirmative, celebrating the courage and pertinacity of ordinary people, and treating them with sympathy.
England’s Lane might have benefited from a more severe editor, for some of the monologues become tiresomely repetitive – though the author might argue that this is how people’s thoughts do indeed go on and on. The reader may choose to skip some passages.
Nevertheless the total effect is pleasing and invigorating. There is no other novelist today who writes quite like Connolly. He may be an acquired taste, but it is a taste well worth acquiring.
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