Book review: Mayflies, by Andrew O'Hagan

In this exploration of enduring friendship, Andrew O’Hagan has created a rare thing: a life-enhancing novel about death. Review by Allan Massie

Andrew O'Hagan
Andrew O'Hagan

Andrew O’Hagan is now perhaps best known for his journalism, especially the long pieces he writes for the London Review of Books. But I have always thought him first and foremost a novelist. Be Near Me, published in 2006, was one of the best Scottish novels of the last 20 years. He has travelled far, but his roots are deep in Ayrshire, and Mayflies goes back there and to his youth. Its theme is friendship. The novel comes in two parts, the first set in 1986, the second in 2017. The narrator, James, ill-at-ease with his distant parents, always finds a welcome from his friend Tully’s mother. As for the livewire Tully, he “made himself new to the world, and ripe for the glories of that summer, by showing he was unlike his father.” Tully is a vital spark, kind, exuberant and tactile. He’ll kiss James, whom he calls Noodles, though neither is gay – just as a mark of affection and high spirits.

James, meanwhile, has the sympathetic English teacher needed by a clever boy in a town where industry is dying or being killed; she insists he must go to university, not work in the local DSS office. The high point of the summer is a trip to Manchester with a group of friends for a music festival. This is recounted with considerable brio and some wit, and I would guess that for many it will be a nostalgic trip down memory lane. Though the different characters are well distinguished, the feeling of happy, free-from-everyday-care adventure is well done, and the jokes and badinage ring true, it lacks freshness, is too familiar in the novel of adolescence; you can’t help thinking you’ve read it too often, even while recognizing that it’s a convincing slice of life. Though mood and characters are very different, there’s something here of the self-indulgence of late Woody Allen movies. O’Hagan, one thinks, can write this sort of stuff without stretching himself. It’s a sort of summer dream.

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The second part is very different and more compelling. James has come a long way from Irvine New Town. We know this from the first paragraph. He is at a dinner in Eaton Square where the guest of honour is his friend, an octogenarian Hungarian novelist. A call comes from Tully. He is a teacher, a good one, in a hard school and still plays in a band. He is also engaged to be married to Anna, a successful lawyer. But he has terminal cancer. He has decided that when it is intolerably advanced, he will go to Dignitas in Switzerland for “assisted dying.” He needs Noodles to help him, all the more so because Anna is set against this ending. But first, there will be a wedding, and then, a few months later, death. Antony and Cleopatra is quoted: “Make Death proud to take us.” The wedding may be read as the “one last gaudy night” Antony calls for.

This second section is very good, and there is none of the self-indulgence evident in the first part of the novel. Indeed it is so good that it invites you to reconsider your response to the first part, whatever that response may have been. Tully has lived life on his own terms and is determined to die that way. He has been one of those who makes life more vital for others; how then is his chosen way of dying to be judged? Would it have been less painful for Anna and his friends if he had allowed the Crab to take its bitter, inexorable course? Or if he had quietly taken an overdose in his own bed? These are necessary but unanswerable questions.

Love and death are art’s two great subjects, the inescapable ones. Both are explored here in a delicate, scrupulous prose. One may wish that O’Hagan wrote more novels, enduring things unlike even the best journalism. This is only his sixth. Three have been very good: Our Fathers, Be Near Me and The Illuminations. Mayflies is in the same class. It’s that rarity: a novel about death that is life-enhancing. You can read it in a long afternoon. It will stay with you and you will want to read it again.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan, is published by Faber & Faber, 177pp, £14.99. Andrew O’Hagan is appearing online as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 30 August,

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