News from a lost world
Derek Johns Portobello Books, 199pp, £7.99
Following the fate of the Palmer family, Derek Johns's accomplished debut begins at the end of an Indian summer. Jim and Margaret have recently moved with their two children to the city of Wells. Jim, formerly the owner of a successful car showroom, has made a series of bad financial decisions resulting in his bankruptcy. A few months ago he was discussing XK150 dropheads and wondering where to flash his cash. Now he is an assistant salesman in a school outfitters. Margaret has swapped her "lazy mornings" nursing cups of coffee with friends for the Somerset countryside and an occasional visit to a local neighbour. Milk comes unpasteurised, from the cowshed across the way.
Moving between the minds of Jim, Margaret, and their ten-year-old son Billy, Wintering is about the growing tension as Jim begins a flirtation, and then affair, with the girl who works in the local café. He had "never had any trouble" attracting women - especially not with "an indigo blue Jag" - but managing to keep a bit on the side on seven pounds a week is a new challenge. Everything, from his limp lunchtime sandwiches to the illicit single-bed sex, seems mean and unsatisfactory. He takes a job on the sly, running some dubious packages down to London, and the secrets multiply. Then they begin to leak out, as Billy discovers more than he wants to about his father's double life.
Aware of Jim's affairs, and his sadness, Margaret attempts to hold the family together. "Winter closed in, and with it the margins of their life", as the narrator puts it. Johns draws her as an intelligent figure who senses her husband's weaknesses. Jim, Margaret confides, has "never had a strong sense of who he is . . . He sees himself as the world reflects him back."
A former bookseller, editor and publisher, and now a literary agent, Johns has spent his life surrounded by others' writing. There are hints of both William Boyd and P Hartley within the narrative, as well as ghosts of Dickens and Defoe. However, Johns's own particular gifts as a writer are clearly in evidence. Echoes and patterns are carefully handled. Jim seems forced to play out his former life on a parodically small scale, selling off his son's Dinky Toy cars to fund a night out with his mistress, or struggling with the strains of a high-stakes Monopoly game. Margaret, meanwhile, takes up amateur dramatics. The play she performs, Noë Coward's Private Lives, seems to acts as a sort of morality tale for the Palmers themselves.
But if there is a way in which this debut novel shows Johns to be demonstrating "who he is", it is through the quiet composure of his material. While this is a book about one family's retrenchment, it also seems to be touching on the value of a sort of fictional "wintering". In a contemporary climate of textual abundance, Johns's slim book gives us a world where people have to search for stories amid scarcity.
As an escape from the tensions of home, Billy devours adventures "set in faraway places. Through school or the mobile library he got hold of Rider Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, John Buchan's Prester John, Conan Doyle's The Lost World. At night he lay in bed . . . inventing stories of his own, stories in which he was always the hero." Later, he runs to a neighbourhood farm to hear the legendary story of when Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury and leaves "in an exalted state . . . It put all his troubles in an entirely new perspective."
This is, undoubtedly, a nostalgic work. But it is not nostalgic in the usual sense of the word - for a past in which, as one of Johns's characters puts it, "everything was simple". Wintering longs not so much for an imagined past, but for the past's imagination. Johns writes brilliantly about the city of Wells itself, and the landscape surrounding it, from Wookey Hole to Glastonbury Tor. He also conjures, in Billy's mind, the myths that surround them. Through this, one gets the sense of a lost world, one in which there was a weighted value and faith in fiction. It makes for a poised and intriguing novel.