Adam Mars-Jones, Faber & Faber, 525pp. £18.99
ADAM MARS-JONES holds a peculiar
place among contemporary English writers, writes
Since then, he has devoted himself almost exclusively to literary criticism and it seemed as if he had forsaken writing novels altogether in favour of reviewing them. But not so, for here is Pilcrow, an extraordinary and lengthy work which manages to be both enchanting and frustrating in almost equal parts.
Pilcrow is a story of childhood, specifically that of John Cromer, who suffers from Still's disease, a form of juvenile arthritis which leads to the permanent fusion of the bones, leaving its victim rigid and unable to negotiate basic tasks. Although a lovable infant, "the sort of bonny baby who provokes knitting frenzy in susceptible persons", John is quickly confined to several years in bed from where he reports on his family's various flaws. His father is a bumbling RAF man, his mother an inveterate snob who believes that a house should have a name ("Trees") and not a number or one risks being labelled suburban. The strongest presence is that of a capricious grandmother, who can't bring herself to say love, let alone feel it - "there was a gap in her personal dictionary somewhere between louche and lozenge". She hovers over the early chapters before disappearing almost entirely and her loss is keenly felt.
Following the tendency of much contemporary fiction, John is a highly precocious and knowing child. From the womb - yes, he can remember that far back - he is interested in spirituality, particularly Hinduism with its belief in past lives and lives yet to come. He prays for release from the drudgery of his existence but never asks for too much, "small improvements rather than drastic transformations". However, as his memories become more erudite - mock fights with his mother are more akin to "Noh drama than to actual rough-housing"; a German swimming teacher puts him in mind of the malevolent preacher from Night of the Hunter - the technique speaks more to the adult novelist than the child narrator, a slight distraction from the otherwise consistent tone.
His greatest passion is for language and he takes great delight in the curiosity of letters, particularly those of the more unusual and poetic kind (the use of æ, for example, letters fused together like his own bones.) The title of the novel comes from a personality he adopts, a piece of punctuation difficult to locate on a keyboard (¶). This is a boy who loves words so much that he falls into an almost orgasmic rhapsody when a doctor uses the admittedly wonderful phrase, "the illness has raged".
There are three long sections to the novel and their success is varied. The first, where John is confined to home, is by far the best. His voice, his experiences, his sense of humour all combine to produce a hundred pages of faultless story-telling. The second, where he is moved to a hospital for similarly afflicted children, remains powerful, dominated as it is by the politics of the ward, where girls are the particular aggressors and boys their hapless victims.
The final part, however, is more problematic. John relocates to a boarding school which specialises in the education of children afflicted with physical disabilities, where his growing attraction to boys reveals itself. Although he admits that it's curious for a school filled with wheelchairs to place its bathrooms on the top floor, it still seems like an anomaly and one that's not entirely credible. There are extended sequences, briefly populated by characters who add little to the story, an apparently "mad major" for example who seems surplus to requirements in a novel as long as this one, while too many characters who should play more of a role - John's younger siblings, for example - barely seem to register in his life.
Paradoxically, one of the novel's greatest strengths is also its major weakness. Spending all of his time among similarly afflicted children, John never feels either resentment or envy towards his able-bodied peers, although it's difficult to imagine a child not suffering from self-pity as he watches his brother ride down the street on the side panels of vintage cars. His total stoicism doesn't appear to mask any hidden anger either; it's just who he is. I found this entirely refreshing in a world filled with misery memoirs. And completely unbelievable.
It's strange to finish reading a novel whose language and story one has revelled in for more than 500 pages and still feel a sense of incompletion. There are no critical moments in the second half of the book to drive the narrative forward, no sense of any dénouement. Things just happen, one after the other, and then the book ends.
As entertaining as it is, as witty and insightful a writer as Mars-Jones proves himself to be, I couldn't help but feel a sense of anticlimax. However as John is only 16 when the novel concludes it's entirely possible that a second volume is planned. If so, let's hope it doesn't take quite so long next time round. If the story of John Cromer teaches the reader anything it's to make the most of one's gifts.
John Boyne's sixth novel, Mutiny on the Bounty, will be published by Doubleday in May