Voice of the nation

<strong>Once Upon a Time in England</strong>

Helen Walsh <em>Canongate, 368pp, £14.99</em>

In 2004 Helen Walsh's debut, Brass, tore into the consciousness of anyone who could ride it out. It was a knockout - a memorably relentless portrayal of a young student, Millie O'Reilley, and her life of drugs and sexual excess. It redrew the "post-feminist" battle lines and prompted Niall Griffiths to say of its author: "Helen Walsh is not going to be a major and interesting new voice; she already is one."

For the author concerned, such a reception is rarely cause for unconditional celebration. It brings with it many caveats, not least the problem of where to go from here. In this case, where to go is Once Upon a Time in England, a "state-of-the-nation" affair that follows the travails of a family living in working-class Warrington from 1975 to 1987. In 1975, Robbie Fitzgerald is a factory worker and singer with a ferociously beautiful voice and a head full of dreams of the big time. His wife, Susheela, is a Tamil who met Robbie when she worked as a nurse at Warrington General and he was brought in after a brawl. Now she looks after their young son, Vincent, and is pregnant again.

Once Upon a Time in England is an angry novel, but also admirably patient and restrained. It is sometimes moving, too, a soft-hearted exploration of hard times. We slip into an easy emotional engagement with the lead characters even as their lives are defined by tragedy, racism, violence and dysfunction.

There are some lovely, subtle, poignant touches. Susheela came to England after seeing It's a Wonderful Life while growing up in Kuala Lumpur and explains to a friend: ". . . to me it was England. They spoke English. England was the country you could get to."

As you would expect of Walsh, it is also very good on the creation of personal identity - the role that kicking against conformity plays in social assimilation. Nights of hedonism in late-Eighties queer Manchester are nicely evoked, and it is interesting to read about the overlapping of Smiths- inspired existential torment with the Madchester scene.

The principal criticism of the novel concerns its voice. In Brass, it was assured and convincing. Walsh told the story in alternating first-person accounts and early on, Millie eulogised the "lucid simplicity" of the way her best friend expressed himself: "Neither him nor any of his mates have been to university. I mean, he's mad on books Jamie - people underestimate him . . ." It came as no surprise, then, when Jamie used the word "tristesse".

In Once Upon a Time in England, Walsh inserts the same word into an account of Robbie Fitzgerald as he contemplates ending the "deathless cycle of being and nothingness". Another time, he awakes next to a woman, a "heaving walrus", after a one-night stand. His windpipe "choked and dry and gluey with mucus", he reaches "across the bulk of a slumbering body" for a drink. "He can recall with pellucid clarity the full pint tankard of water he perched by the bed last night."

But Robbie has only just taught himself to read and can barely write. And although this is not him speaking or even thinking - it is clearly an authorial voice - there are ways of controlling it that would not have given the reader such an uneven ride. As it is, the "pellucid clarity" sits uneasily with the "heaving walrus", and the "tristesse" and "being and nothingness" just jar.

There are also inconsistencies within the character of Robbie, particularly in his relationship with Vincent. Confronted with his bookish son's dinner-table chat, "Robbie couldn't look at him without experiencing a sharp stab of disappointment these days - betrayal, even. Where had he gone wrong? All he wanted was a son, a boy - someone to muck around with. Instead he got this. Mentors. Curators. Muses."

But Robbie is a songwriter. Later, Vincent enters a writing competition and is encouraged by his dad - "Come on son! Fucksake, I've wrote lyrics all my life, lad! I know . . .'' - who is then beside himself when his son wins: "Him, their Vincent, following in his old man's footsteps."

Robbie Fitzgerald is the most fully realised of the characters in the novel. As such, he is conflicted, a contradictory fellow, contains multitudes, et cetera, et cetera. But do these inconsistencies of voice and character merely illustrate this? Or do they also show that - notwithstanding the undeniable power of her writing at its best - Walsh can occasionally lose absolute control over her material?

If the answer to this question is a qualified "yes", we shouldn't forget that the question arises only because Walsh is not a mediocre writer. If she were, the unevenness would not draw attention to itself.

To put these criticisms into sharper perspective, Once Upon a Time in England will be one of the 20 best novels published this year. It is a very good novel and it deserves to be read; its inevitable misfortune is to be judged against one as unique as Brass.

This article first appeared in the 24 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about Tibet