The Truth About These Strange Times
by Adam Foulds
Until he won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award last year for this début novel Adam Foulds was gaining more financial support from his fork-lift-truck driving licence than his Creative Writing MA from UEA. Since then however he has been receiving the kind of reviews most writers would give their MA for, both in print and online. Knowing that his most recent novel was set in the nineteenth century and his previous book was a narrative poem about the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya I was slightly deflated to find that this first book begins in a far more mundane present-day Burnley. The cover too didn't fill me with confidence, falling somewhere between willfully quirky and chick-lit. Perhaps I never recovered from this shock, or wanted this book to be more like the aspirational writing which has come after it, but I never quite managed to let go and enjoy what this is: an solid debut with plenty to enjoy.
Saul Dawson-Smith is a ten year old with a gift. He can memorise the sequence of a shuffled deck of cards, recite pi to a thousand decimal places and will be tested to the limit in the upcoming World Memory Championship. For his father Les in particular, both proud and proprietorial of his son's gift which he thinks entitles him to 'the respect of all parents, of all people everywhere', this is the moment it has all been leading towards. Into their life comes Howard MacNamee, a grossly overweight Glaswegian whom we first encounter in a gym of all places (though only working there in the laundry), who is befriended by the family as the man on the spot to help Saul's grandmother when she collapsed and visit her in hospital (where he was recovering from a chip-fat induced skin graft) until her death. Howard is obviously not comfortable in their house but not simply for the obvious reasons.
These people were geniuses, no doubt about it, and never calm, never just watching telly and vegging out. Howard really missed the telly. Without it, he couldn't switch off and hang his tired mind in the wash of colours and friendliness. He thought of all the comedy shows he was missing, major new adverts he wouldn't even know about, all the gardening shows he could be learning from. Not having telly kept Howard inside himself at all times and this wasn't good. What with Saul's questions, all the tumult in his life, the questions provoked by every scrap of difference between his old life and the lives of these strangers, he was starting to have memories.
Those memories are slowly revealed through the book. A difficult childhood of bullying and domestic violence, not perhaps what you might have expected from the whimsical cover but it is a mark of Foulds deftness that he manages to handle both humour and pathos with equal assurance.
He saw his father uncontainable, unstoppable even by himself, approach his mother in two awkwardly overlong strides. His arm goes back. His mother, matter-of-factly, as if this is just something happening, an ordinary thing, like a bus going past or a shop closing, without crying out, doubles over and falls to the floor. Howard hiding under the window, has already had his and has nothing to do now but count how many times he kicks. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. A pause; his father is tiring. Seven. He leaves with a crash, a great sucking commotion of sound through the front door, and the two of them are left on the carpet, far apart.
The road-trip that this odd couple embark on, born out of an attempt by Howard to rescue Saul, is really an opportunity for him to confront and atone for the past that he has managed so far to block out of his life, to attempt to rescue himself. This means that Saul is limited as a character, only really serving as a means of extracting Howard's story and the less said about the Russian bride sub-plot the better. That the climax towards which the novel builds is a bit of a non-event may have been intentional but it can't help but diminish the impact of the book.
On the positive side Foulds displays several talents along the way including some nice one-liners ('Howard's heart felt like a fat man trying to get out of a chair') and descriptive prose that captures the wonder of simple things like the moment when Howard and Saul play together with a flyaway football from the sweetshop or huddle together for warmth as they fall asleep in a field overnight. There are several moments where the prose takes on the qualities of poetry as when Howard watches those last moments pass over the face of Saul's grandmother in hospital, 'suddenly something changed, went, like water sinking into sand'. In fact I think the source of my frustration may have been the sense that this was a writer marking time, getting the first book finished before going on to write something closer to what he is really capable of. Which isn't the worst problem in the world, particularly when that book is on your TBR pile.