Friday, August 03, 2018

the last book I read

Me And The Fat Man by Julie Myerson. 

Amy is just a regular girl in a provincial town (a thinly-disguised Bath by the look of it) trying to get by, with all the mundane day-to-day problems we all have: grumpy unsatisfying marriage, boring job as a waitress in a local bistro, lucrative side-business picking up punters in a local park and taking them off to a rented room for some perfunctory handjob/blowjob action. I mean, we've all been there.

One day during a shift at the bistro a man called Harris walks in and claims to know her from when she was a child. Amy has only the dimmest recollections of her early years, which were spent with her mother Jody on the fictional Greek island of Eknos (a thinly-disguised actual Greek island, for all I know) and which ended when Jody drowned in the Aegean in dimly-remembered but mysterious circumstances, whereupon Amy was re-homed in the UK with foster-parents Brian and Eileen.

Anyway, Harris claims to be an ex-boyfriend of Jody's from her pre-Greece days, but also to have visited Jody and Amy and her little brother Paul on the island. Wait, Paul? It turns out Paul also died in slightly mysterious circumstances when he was very young, and Amy hardly remembers him at all. Back in the present, though, Harris has a young friend slash ward slash flatmate called Gary that he's very keen for Amy to meet. Harris's story is that he also knew Gary's mother and has been fulfilling some sort of vaguely paternal role for the last twenty years or so, though Gary seems quietly dubious about some of this.

Harris is keen for Amy to come on a trip to Eknos with him, though it's not clear what he's hoping to get out of it. In any case, there is a spanner in the works: Amy and Gary have struck up a relationship and Amy finds herself pregnant. Amy and Gary set up house together (Amy's estranged husband having been brought up to speed with events by this point) and have a baby boy, Jimmy. Things are tough; Gary works in a bookshop and Amy has kept up with the waitressing (though not with the prostitution) so there's a bit of money coming in, but not much. But then baby Jimmy dies while having a nap in his pram and Amy goes off the rails somewhat, stealing his still-warm corpse from the hospital morgue, zipping it into a holdall and fleeing on a budget flight to Eknos. After narrowly avoiding the rapey attentions of her taxi driver (by bashing him over the head with a rock) she arrives in the village of Diakofti where she lived as a young girl. But, whoa, hang on a minute, what's Gary doing here already?

All is not as it seems, says Gary. No shit, Sherlock, says Amy. Don't rush off in a huff, says Gary, I've got to do my Basil Exposition bit and then we can discuss what's in that stinky holdall. So it appears that Gary has in fact been Greek all along, and was taken under Harris' wing in rather different circumstances from those originally described. Harris really did know Jody, and indeed appears to have been the father of Amy's younger brother Paul, but Jody apparently killed little Paul (at least semi-accidentally) and then herself shortly afterwards by some Reggie Perrin-style walking into the sea.

So what does all this mean? What were Harris' motivations in any of this? What does it mean for Amy and Gary's future relationship? Where are they going to bury Jimmy's malodorous remains? Should they give the holdall a rinse before using it for the return trip? None of that is completely clear (well, they do successfully bury Jimmy) since I'm not completely sure any of the plot knitting-together at the end really makes sense - that something bad happened to Paul, that it was probably Jody's fault and that her death probably wasn't an accident are all clear fairly early on; all the additional stuff about Gary and Harris is neither remotely plausible nor especially important. The key unresolved plot point we're presumably meant to muse on is: did Harris kill Jimmy? He was alone with him in the house while Amy was sleeping and gone when she woke up to find Jimmy dead, so he could have; but why? Long-delayed revenge on Jody for killing his son? Who knows?

As with A Man In Full these minor quibbles aren't that important; the important thing here is the general atmosphere of slightly spooky dread which is kept up throughout, a bit like in Richard Adams' The Girl In A Swing but without the explicitly supernatural elements. As with Laura Blundy (which was considerably more baffling) and also Sleepwalking and Something Might Happen Myerson conjures up a female protagonist whose motivations are rich and complex and opaque but involve fierce and intense feelings about sex and motherhood; obviously men regularly write female characters and vice versa but these are female characters it would be hard to imagine a man having written, or not nearly so convincingly anyway.

This is a pretty short book - 217 pages, small format - and zips by quickly, but leaves a strange and lingering impression. It's probably not as good as, say, Something Might Happen (which is quite a bit longer) but is well worth a read, especially if as I did you can pick up a copy for a pound from the splendid little second-hand bookshop tucked away round the side of Tredegar House.

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