Little Monsters has been sitting on the shelf for months in proof copy, but it took a tempting review over at John Self's Asylum and the arrival of an actual published version of the book to chivy me into action.
I wonder whether we all have a strange affinity for people born in the same year as ourselves, or is it just me, being grateful to find yet another Coronation year baby out there? Charles Lambert also born in 1953, so give or take the odd detail, he probably knew and experienced life pretty much as I did in those semi-austere monochrome post-war years, replete with the novelty of a new young monarch on the throne, parents who had lived through a war and boiled mince,mash and carrots for lunch every Saturday.
There were tiny little pointers in this book that told me so.
One brief reference to that delicious orange juice we all used to get a spoonful of to stop us getting scurvy and then I remind myself of how equally delicious I found cod liver oil until I realised what it was.
Young teenager Carol, having witnessed her father killing her mother is whisked off to live with her Aunt Margot in the pub and as if the life she's been living hasn't been bad enough here things get a whole lot worse. Unwanted, lonely and hopelessly lost Carol presents as the saddest of children as she struggles to come to terms with half-known truths and unspoken disgrace.
'Sometimes I think there is only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me. Because to lose your parents as I did is to know not only grief but shame.'
It is only the friendship of the honorary Uncle Jozef exiled during the war from his native Poland and the love-hate friendship of cousin Nicholas that partially redeems a desperate situation.
With such a flimsy emotional scaffolding on which to balance and support her adult self there is much to be explored here. How events impact on the rest of her life and affect the judgements Carol makes in years to come is all played out with remarkable agility by Charles Lambert in a narrative that shuttles between Derbyshire and Italy and across time spanning the 1950's to the 1990's.
I often wonder whether writers actually write two stories and then do a whole lot of cutting and pasting to mix it all up?
I expect someone will stop by and put me out of my misery.
Your heart semi-bleeds for Carol as she attempts an act of redemption later in life but with an act of seeming kindness so acutely misplaced that you can only watch and wait.
I say semi-bleeds because I didn't quite warm to Carol as much as I probably should have done given her circumstances. Intentional or not there was something inevitably detached and arm's-length about her adult self, perhaps that was at Carol's instigation, or was I just looking too hard for evidence to back up my psychoanalytical predictions?
There is a slow drip drip of facts hinted at, often just a single word but laden with significance for the plot, words like 'prison' and 'marriage'. It's a bit of a narrative relay as one strand of the plot catches up with another and thankfully Charles Lambert doesn't drop the baton here in fact I think most of the time he follows his own advice,
'Detail renders visible...excess of detail though can have the opposite effect. If detail renders visible, too much detail can reduce visibility to indifference. It levels everything, cuts everything down to size.'
There was nothing indifferent about Little Monsters.