It’s very easy to be cynical. There are a limited number of publishing deals available to debut novelists so when one is taken by a celebrity, some might wonder whether it has been awarded on merit or because the name alone might help recoup the investment. Comedians from Eric Morecambe to Ardal O’Hanlon have tried their hand at fiction with varying degrees of success, generally returning to their day jobs after a book or two, although some continue to take up valuable bookshop space with prolific but unimpressive work. (Naming no names, but Ben Elton.)
I'll hold my hands up and admit that I came to Holding by Graham Norton with certain expectations, all of which were confounded early on. I assumed it would be funny and it's not, for although there are occasional moments of dry wit, this is not a comic novel. I imagined it would be a quick, easy read but in fact it's skilfully paced. I thought it would be all plot – but while the story is certainly engaging, it's the delicate characterisation that stands out.
Look, I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t think it was going to be very good. I was completely and utterly wrong.
Set in a small west Cork town, Holding is a novel with no central character but rather a cast of about half a dozen, each of whom finds their lives changed by the discovery of human remains in a plot of land earmarked for a new housing development. There's Sgt Collins, a corpulent but kindly man, inexperienced in romance, who's suffered bouts of public humiliation since his teenage years. There's Evelyn Ross and Brid Riordan, two middle-aged women whose lives have been diminished by the disappearance of the man they both loved many years earlier. Surprisingly, there are no significant young characters in the book, a brave choice on the part of an author who prefers to focus on the sense of despair that comes from finding oneself halfway through life only to realise that one has achieved nothing of value and probably never will.
Although the mystery of the discovered body lies at the centre of the story, Norton is less interested in the identity of the murderer than the effect of loss on those the victim left behind. There are powerful moments of pathos throughout, particularly towards female characters condemned to loveless marriages or unwelcome spinsterhood, and Norton writes of their isolation with considerable empathy. Most successful in this regard is his depiction of Brid Riordan, who turns to alcohol when the memories of her lost love engulf her fragile spirit. Given the repeated references to Sgt Collins’ obesity, an unexpected sexual encounter between the pair could have been played for laughs but instead is both unfussy and gentle and it’s to Norton’s credit that he writes of two lonely people uncertain how to cope with awakened feelings of romance with sensitivity and understanding.
Common themes of Irish fiction – the importance of land in rural communities, unpunished assaults by men towards women, the horrors of teenage pregnancy – all find a place in Holding but nowhere does the author resort to cliché. In fact, he writes of each with real originality which is no mean feat considering how well trod these paths have been over the years. Interestingly, the only priest in the novel is a minor character who appears in just one significant scene and he is no demon but a considerate man doing his misguided best to help a young girl who has got "into trouble".
Holding is a considerable achievement and if it was a debut novel by an unknown Irish writer it would likely garner significant praise. For me, it's one of the more authentic debuts I've read in recent years simply because it's written in such an understated manner, eschewing linguistic eccentricity and absurd storylines in favour of genuine characters and tender feeling. Even the title of the novel is a nod towards simplicity over idiosyncrasy.
However, as we don’t live in a meritocracy and literary snobbery can often prevail over considered judgment, there’s a chance that Norton may struggle to attract readers even though the novel is guaranteed to draw significant media attention. Those who don’t care for his BBC television chat show will likely avoid it and those who do might be surprised, even disappointed, by the restraint and delicacy on display throughout. Either way, readers would be advised to put all pre-conceptions aside, for this is a fine novel and it would be a cold-hearted reader who failed to feel a lump in the throat at the hope and optimism displayed in the final two pages.
It’s possible that Norton has been wasted on TV all these years.
John Boyne’s 10th novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies, will be published in February (Doubleday)