Book review: If This Is Home by Stuart Evers

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STUART Evers’s Ten Stories About Smoking won last years London Book Award. If This is Home is his first novel, and an unusually accomplished one.

If This Is Home

By Stuart Evers

Picador, 310pp. £16.99

Evers writes a suitably unobtrusive prose, but every now and then he comes up with a sentence that makes you smile: “he was in his late thirties and his white-toothed grin looked stolen from a magazine”. Raymond Chandler would have been happy to have written that one.

The story is about lost love and dislocation. It opens in Las Vegas where the narrator is engaged in the selling of real estate, a dream project called Valhalla, the last word in hi-tech luxury and anonymity. It’s a great success, and truly horrible. But the narrator who used to be an Englishman called Mark Wilkinson, but is now a Polish-American whose false papers identify him as Joe Nowak – known, however, in the Valhalla project as Mr Jones – is on the verge of experiencing a nervous collapse. He came to the USA at the age of 18, some 14 years ago, in pursuit of a dream and has made good in a material sense. Yet we soon learn that while pursuing this dream, he was also running away from a nightmare. Now the false identity he made for himself is cracking. He can’t live any longer with the life he has made for himself. So he has to go home, to confront the past.

At the age of 18 Mark was in love with a beautiful girl called Bethany. He was also infatuated with the idea of America and they were planning a holiday in New York; it didn’t occur to him that Bethany did not share his obsession, and might indeed be a bit alarmed by its intensity.  They plan to go after Carnival day in their north of England town, and Bethany, somewhat reluctantly, has been persuaded by her father to play the part of that year’s Carnival Queen. The day ends disastrously – we soon learn why – and Mark runs away, to construct his new identity and escape the reality of what has happened. But when he breaks into Las Vegas, his sanity depends on his ability to face up to reality.

Returning home to a town that has changed and yet remains in so many ways the same, he finds himself in a  state of limbo. Flickering memories seem more real than the present. He is accompanied as he wanders round the town by Bethany’s ghostly voice, now recalling the past, now chiding him, now encouraging him to face up to what really happened. Employing the dead girl’s voice is a risky device; it could be embarrassing. Evers pulls it off convincingly. Likewise he manages the time shifts effectively, with complete assurance, partly because he has so thoroughly imagined both Mark’s state of mind and the town itself This is a novel about one man’s personal dilemma and pain, but it is also a social novel. Though much of what happens goes on in Mark’s head, and though we see the town, then and now, partly through his eyes, partly through Bethany’s in the carnival sections, Evers conveys the sense of a social environment and of the difference between what Mark remembers and what he now sees.

A chance encounter with a woman in a hotel bar helps him on the way to recovery. He at last brings himself to call on Bethany’s bereaved father – a meeting that turns out unexpectedly – and then on his own father with whom he has had no communication since he fled in the night the carnival ended. This meeting is jarring, and rings true. One of the most impressive features of this impressive novel is the absence of sentimentality.

GK Chesterton wrote that people travel not so much for experience as to escape the experience of reality, reality being the people next door. This was a typical Chestertonian paradox, and, like most of his paradoxes, more than half-true. Mark’s flight to New York and Las Vegas and his apparently successful construction of a new identity have been less a search for experience than a denial of what he experienced and of its significance..

It is a pleasure to come on the work of a young novelist which is so intelligent and perceptive, and so well-written and so well-constructed. It is often rash to predict a successful future for a writer on the evidence of a first novel because that novel may draw on a well of experience and imagination which is soon drained. But I should be astonished if Stuart Evers does not prove to be the real thing. Meanwhile, this first novel is a fine achievement, something to savour. When I had finished it, I went back and read it again, and it seemed even better second time round.