Book review: The Old Haunts, by Allan Radcliffe

There is much to admire in this debut novel, from the elegance and economy of the writing to the understanding of the emotional difficulties faced by its young protagonist. Review by Allan Massie

The Old Haunts is a short, elegant first novel about family relationships and the difficulties of communication with those you love. Jamie, a young artist and art teacher in a London school, has come north with his actor boyfriend Alex, half Irish, half Indonesian. Alex, like most actors, is mostly out of work, but now auditioning for some TV voice-overs. Jamie’s parents have recently died and he is hoping to find a cottage where the three of them – he’s an only child – once spent a memorable and happy holiday. They stay in a bed-and-breakfast kept by a Scottish-Canadian woman, and later in the book her life story will make a significant impression on Jamie.

The novel is written in his voice. He is an only child, son of two elderly parents who keep a newspaper shop in a village near Edinburgh. They are, as he realizes with some embarrassment when he goes to school, much older than other pupils’ parents, old enough indeed to be taken for his grandparents. But he is much-loved and they are indeed admirable people. He is small for his age, shy, even timid, a natural target for rougher boys. He is bright but his only talent is for drawing. Still, memories of childhood are happy. Radcliffe’s depiction of the parents rings true and his evocation of Jamie’s relations with them is good. The boy’s life is well, even tenderly, done.

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In his teens, some time after puberty, he becomes aware of his difference from his classmates, a difference he tries to conceal. One night at home watching TV his mother asks if a young man appearing on the screen is “a poof”. After some consideration her husband confirms her suspicion. Jamie is silent. He recognizes that there are things he can’t discuss with his loved and loving parents. Radcliffe handles this delicately and convincingly.

Allan Radcliffe PIC: Ditte Solgaard DunnAllan Radcliffe PIC: Ditte Solgaard Dunn
Allan Radcliffe PIC: Ditte Solgaard Dunn

Jamie goes to Art School. It has to be London for him. Naturally his parents are doubtful – their wee boy in that big, bad, foreign city – but for him it’s a place where he can be himself. When his parents come down to visit him, he takes a fellow student, an Indian girl, to meet them. For protection? To make questions difficult? Later, after graduation, when he is selling only the occasional painting and is living in a squat, more lies will be required.

It is all very credibly and sympathetically done. None of the three wants to hurt any of the others. There are things that cannot be spoken about. It’s a very Scottish inarticulacy. Reading this accomplished novel, I was reminded of a much-loved aunt, a very good person who whenever faced with a difficult or painful matter someone’s dishonesty, for instance, would say, very quietly ”we don’t speak about it”. There is much that one suspects Jamie’s parents know but cannot acknowledge. They have a well-bred and timid reserve. Whatever the mother fears and the father may be sadly sure of, reticence rules. It is partly self-protection, partly a question of manners. “We don’t speak about it.” Jamie’s parents belong to a generation that was sparing in communication. What is touching in this novel is Radcliffe’s understanding of emotion suppressed and silent. Late in the story, after Kit, the Scottish-Canadian woman, has recounted much of her own life-story to Jamie, she says “You fold it all in to you, the good and the bad, and you just go on,” It may be a better way of living than the more modern “let it all hang out”.

There is much to admire in this novel: the elegance and economy of the writing, the understanding of emotional difficulties, the truth to life, the evocation of a habit of mind that is passing. It seems to me an admirable first novel. A lesser writer might have made it twice as long. It will be interesting to see what Allan Radcliffe does next. As a writer who lets imagination play on experience he surely has a bright future.

The Old Haunts, by Allan Radcliffe, Fairlight, £7.99

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