Here we have a book quite unlike anything I have read before... Reading Wes Brown's debut novel is a little like getting punched in the stomach (in a good way)...
Set in Leeds, the protagonist John Usher is a soldier of the Iraq war returning to the humdrum rhythms of civilian life. Rather than appreciating the peace his return offers, John misses the violence and heat of his life as a soldier, seeking solace in aggressive games of pool at the failing local bar, and intense sexual encounters.
There were several things that surprised me about this book, not least of which is Brown's dedication to writing in a Leeds dialect. Initially I thought this might be distracting for me, as I haven't spent any time in Leeds and can't hear the accent, but I found I fell into the speech patterns. This was a daring move, and one which works extremely well in firmly placing the novel, and in giving an impression of that working class (for want of a better term) environment with its racism, misogynism and general struggle to adapt to the times. We are introduced to the tensions between Pakistani men and right-wing nationalist groups, and there is a real sense of a society on the point of collapse.
The dialect is made all the more interesting as it is balanced with a kind of rough poetic prose, which often uses expletives and alliterative, sexually explicit language with great results. While the characters themselves are limited in what they can articulate, Brown is a competent narrator with a distinctive style. He moves smoothly between the sections set in Leeds to those few scenes in the blistering heat of Basra. These transitions are not done too often though; this is not a novel comprised of flashbacks (which is what I had expected). Rather, these sections are used to emphasise the mundane cycles of John's life. He wakes up. He watches TV. He goes to the bar. He drinks beer. He has sex.
As he considers his prospects, the reader is left feeling as though there is nothing he can do that won't undermine his experiences at war. Sex is the closest he can get to the immediacy of experience that he craves, yet even that comes with the complication of attachment. The initial thrill, even John's proclamations of love, fade with time. Driven by an underlying desire for 'something more', the characters fail time and again to find any kind of real fulfillment.
Tuesday, 24 January 2012