Book Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton

I listened to Home Stretch as an audiobook, and this is a terrific option in this case as the book is read by the author. Graham Norton has a warm and vivid reading style – he has the kind of voice that sounds friendly and the humour never seems all that far away, even when the plot takes a serious turn. Which it does quite often.

The story concerns young Connor, who is caught up with a bunch of local teenagers on the eve of a wedding, tagging along on a trip to the beach. He’s the son of a publican in one of those tiny Irish coastal towns where everybody knows everybody and there’s no hiding any secrets, or so we might suppose. When the car crashes and three are killed, including the bride and groom, another girl left fighting for her life, Connor carries the shame of being the driver responsible.

After the court case, Connor is sent to Liverpool to work for a cousin’s building business and sets out to forget his family, his town and all that has gone on before. But Connor has another secret – he is gay – something he has never been able to mention to his family; this is 1987 after all. When fate conspires to send Connor to London and later to the US, it seems like he can never go home.

The story weaves between Connor’s and that of his sister, Ellen, rescued from shame by Connor’s fellow crash survivor, Martin, the doctor’s son. Martin seems to be the white knight, dazzling Ellen with thoughts of new beginnings. Things don’t quite turn out for Ellen as she may have hoped, and eventually the past will come back and secrets will emerge. Can Connor ever make his way home again and find acceptance in his family?

The story switches between viewpoints and jumps through the decades to the time of the referendum that voted for legalising gay marriage in Ireland. Even Connor’s dad put up a ‘vote yes’ poster in the pub, so the book mirrors changes in society as well as several dawning realisations among the main characters. I felt this was perhaps a more personal story from this author, and it is easy to imagine Norton weaving in some of his own experiences and insight about the gay scene and the shifts in public perception over time.

My only reservation was that sometimes we seem to be fairly galloping through the years and I could happily have stayed awhile longer here and there. But at least this keeps the reader hooked on the story, wondering if Connor will ever make it home to face the past. The book is told with very real feeling and any parent will relate to the fear of never seeing their child again. Norton has such a deep empathy for his characters, even the ones we are not supposed to like are not painted entirely black – there is understanding for them as well.

I loved the dialogue which is very real and lively – Norton having a keen ear for the way people express their personalities in speech. And then there’s the humour, just twinkling away in the background, caught in the banter of characters’ interactions, the way they perceive themselves, the foolishness of youth, the misunderstandings. Home Stretch is a heartfelt and entertaining read, and I thoroughly recommend the audiobook version and Graham Norton’s splendid performance. A three and a half out of five read from me.

Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.