Bilston has previously published collections of his poetry. This, his first novel, also stands out as highly original, but the character of the protagonist, also called Brian Bilston, has a haplessness and self-absorption reminiscent of Adrian Mole. As the title suggests, there is also more than a touch of Pooter in the mix too, which can never be a bad thing.
The novel’s version of Brian is also a poet, who resolves to write a poem a day as a New Year’s resolution to improve his life. His diary entries introduce us to his laughably woeful world, but in contrast his poems take mundane subjects and reflect them beautifully.
At work he is tasked with making PowerPoint presentations on monetising the company’s social media presence. The resulting poem is:
“The ad said
MONETIZE YOUR FOLLOWERS
so he thought he would respond;
he painted them
in the changing light,
in a pond.”
The morose, bumbling Brian was married but his wife has left him and taken up with a man who is pretty much his opposite in every way. Stuart Mould is a motivational speaker who trumpets his charity on social media and impresses Brian’s son Dylan with Maseratis and macho success.
Brian attends a poetry group, but this creative outlet only serves to further highlight his failure in life. His arch rival, the pretentious Toby Salt, has had a collection of poetry published, entitled This Bridge No Hands Shall Cleave.
A new arrival at the poetry club, Liz, is everything Brian wants in a woman and his clumsy courtship of her and the mysterious disappearance of Toby forms the main plot strand of the novel. But this is not a book to merely find out what happens in the end. In fact, I rather regretted reading it over just a couple of days – it would have been better to take longer and savour it, not least because some of the poems are set out as acrostics, crosswords and mathematical formulae and deserve time spent appreciating them.
Mostly, they are a graceful dance with language. This one, entitled “The Incidence of Oxymorons,” in which the poet recalls an argument about grammar, is typical:
“But this felt strangely normal;
Ours was a bittersweet relationship,
A tragi-comic civil war
Of violent agreements and deafening silences, going nowhere.”
And then there are little spoonfuls of wit such as “Last Night, Sleepwalking…”
“I broke my arm
when I fell off a fence
got taken off
in a somnambulance.”
It is true that some of the characters in the novel are drawn with a much heavier hand than the poems and there isn’t a lot of light and shade.But this is a comic novel and people on the periphery of the story are a joy, from the man at number 29 who cannot get his bins collected to Brian’s fellow poets from his writing group, who display a complete lack of self-awareness which feels so real that it must surely come from the author’s experience. The description of one member of the group, Mary, is about as perfect a paragraph as I’ve read:
“Mary got proceedings off to a poignant start with a requiem to her husband, Leonard, who tragically died in the Falklands. This was not during hostilities, as it turns out, but falling off a cliff while attempting to photograph a colony of rockhopper penguins. Leonard, as we’ve learnt over the years, was her third husband of six. The sequence runs as follows: Divorce, Bewildered, Died, Divorced, Befuddled, Surprised.” - Kirsty McLuckie
Diary of a Somebody, by Brian Bilston, Picador, 392pp, £14.99