A funny, touching book about loneliness
It’s not easy seamlessly to mix comedy and tragedy, but Daniel Seery’s debut does a good job
Daniel Seery: has written an original and very promising novel
A Model Partner
Tom Stacey doesn’t lead a particularly romantic or exciting life. He lives alone in a drab bedsit and works at a printing press, where his colleagues view him with a mixture of amusement and faint suspicion. Tom, like most people, yearns for love and companionship, so he joins a dating agency. But none of his dates goes well, possibly because he doesn’t realise that most women will be taken aback if their date asks them how often they wash their hair and then tells them that women are more likely than men to get headlice.
After 22 bad dates Tom realises he’s got to pin down exactly what he’s looking for if he wants the agency to find his perfect partner. So he embarks on a quest to discover what he wants in a woman, from character traits to physical features. When his neighbours accidentally leave the door of their flat open when they go on holiday, Tom finds their airier home is a perfect place to work on his plan. And to ensure he has something concrete to show the agency people, he documents his conclusions with the help of a handy chart, a bag of wigs and an old waxwork of William Shatner from “around the time he made T J Hooke r”.
At its heart Daniel Seery’s funny, touching debut novel is a book about loneliness. Brought up by his grandparents, Tom has never really been able to connect with other people. After his grandmother dies, his grandfather, a former lorry driver, abandons their home and belongings and takes the teenage Tom to live in a badly converted horse-box lorry, driving aimlessly from one part of Dublin to another.
As Tom attempts to define what he wants he also looks back to his unconventional, unstable youth. As he remembers those lonely days he wonders what happened to Sarah McCarthy, whom he met as a teenager and who is the first and maybe only girl he ever loved.
Perhaps the most moving aspect of A Model Partner is Tom’s relationship with his difficult and equally isolated grandfather. It’s a relationship that could, perhaps, have been different if either were able to talk about his feelings, and it’s beautifully and heartbreakingly drawn. The narrative moves easily between Tom’s past and his equally lonely present, creating a moving portrait of a troubled, strange but decent and intelligent man who doesn’t quite fit in the world and who, at times of stress, is haunted by the buzzing of bees that he never sees.
The socially awkward man looking for his ideal woman has been a cultural staple for decades. But while in less skilful hands Tom could have been a cliche, with his tics, his OCD and his interest in odd scientific facts, Seery ensures he always seems like a real, complex person, whose increasingly bizarre actions seem perfectly in character. Even using a Shatner waxwork to create a model of his ideal woman for the agency starts to seem less like the origins of a serial killer and more like simple practicality.
Still, there are times when Tom’s behaviour left me queasy. Determined to document the facial features he finds most appealing, he begins to photograph women in the street, and doesn’t understand why they become upset or angry. Although the book doesn’t attempt to justify his behaviour, earlier in the story he is unjustly accused of sexual harassment by a colleague, and this gives the subsequent impression, probably unintentionally, that women who are disturbed by Tom’s behaviour are unfair because they just don’t understand him. But even innocently meant actions can cause real distress, and while Tom is horrified to be called a pervert, he doesn’t see why his behaviour is still intrusive and upsetting.
But a novelist isn’t obliged to teach his characters anything, and although his prose can feel a little awkward at times, in general Seery handles Tom with a sure touch. For a book about isolation and sadness, A Model Partner is often very funny – I laughed aloud at Tom’s attempts to transport his model on the bus. (“That’s William Shatner,” says a small boy who insists on seeing the waxwork. “The state of him.”)
It’s not easy seamlessly to mix comedy and tragedy, but Seery does a good job, and the result is an original and very promising novel.