The Innocent of Falkland Road by Carlo Gébler
This is sentimental fare, as much in its picture-postcard Sixties backdrop as its heart-warming if slightly saccharine storyline
Carlo Gébler: Though it is never explicitly articulated as such, this is in part a subtle portrait of the first glimmers of sexuality on the threshold of adolescence
The Innocent of Falkland Road
New Island Books
Set in mid-1960s London, Carlo Gébler’s latest novel tells the story of 12-year-old Ralph, whose mother is away in the United States and has left him in the temporary care of his housekeeper Doreen, and Doreen’s husband Tom. Doreen has an affair and falls pregnant, whereupon Tom moves out; it is left to our young hero to console Doreen with cups of tea and words of comfort, before embarking on a mission to reunite the couple.
We follow Ralph, a highly skilled eavesdropper, as he tries to make sense of the adult world – the grown-ups’ clandestine comings and goings, evasive silences and self-defeating stubbornness – and reconcile its moral contradictions. He reads Lord of the Flies and ruminates on the codes and rules that make up the social contract: when is it okay to dissemble or to withhold the truth, and when is it not okay? At what point do the prerogatives of personal autonomy trump those of the collective?
The Innocent of Falkland Road is sentimental fare, as much in its picture-postcard Sixties backdrop as its heart-warming if slightly saccharine storyline. Gebler’s third-person narrator describes a world of Woolworths singles bags, old-fashioned ticket machines and television sets, clockwork toys, clay pipes and condensed milk; a passing mention of a pantechnicon had this reviewer (born in 1981) reaching for the dictionary.
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Harold Wilson comes to power and Winston Churchill is laid to rest in a state funeral
There is reference, too, to the socio-political upheavals of the moment, as Ralph’s mother writes home with tales of racial unrest in America, and a left-wing friend waxes lyrical about Malcolm X.
Harold Wilson comes to power and Winston Churchill is laid to rest in a state funeral. If we aren’t to dismiss this as mere gratuitous period nostalgia, we must presumably infer that the author is inviting us to connect the broader socio-political context with the personal travails of his characters: here, in the early years of the “permissive society”, is a boy whose yearning for stability puts him at odds with the new zeitgeist.
The most intriguing aspect of the book is Gébler’s rendering of Ralph’s relationships with the variously embattled adult women around him – Doreen, Ginny and “mopey” Maud, whose husband has skipped bail having put their house up as surety. He is tender and precociously intelligent in his interactions with them, and attentively observes their dress, hair and make-up.
You’re totally reliable, which means one day you’re going to make some woman very happy
Though it is never explicitly articulated as such, this is in part a subtle portrait of the first glimmers of sexuality on the threshold of adolescence. Ralph is particularly fond of his eccentric English teacher, Miss Loudon, who gets him hooked on reading; when she is booted out of her job for having it away with a notoriously sadistic PE teacher, Ralph is both saddened and bewildered. Meanwhile the reprehensible behaviour of some of the men in their milieu prompts Ralph to reflect on the nature of men’s obligations towards women.
Doreen praises him for his constancy: “You’re totally reliable, which means one day you’re going to make some woman very happy.” But he is only 12, and will surely grow out of that.