A sprawling saga of the English suburbs, a sort of East Enders for north Londoners, that’s attracted more attention across the pond for the debut author’s age and the size of his U.S. advance than for its literary qualities.
That’s unfortunate, for 72-year-old Chadwick, who has knocked around the world and apparently draws much on his experiences here, has a quiet but assured way with a sentence. Tom Ripple, his protagonist and narrator, is a middling middle-ager when we meet him in the early 1970s; he works without satisfaction (“My job is to produce tables and charts showing trends in sales and the like”), lives with a wife with whom he shares a clenched-hair failure to communicate (“My wife does not play games, perhaps on principle. I’m not sure, I’ve never asked her”) and two children who can barely be stirred from the telly. His neighbors are strange but not overtly extraordinary (covertly, yes, to be sure), and everyone seems a bit baffled that the nation came out ahead in WWII and has got to its present state. Time passes. Tom has aged ten years, Margaret Thatcher is now in office, he’s out of the grip of his hated boss, out of his marriage and even further removed from his children, whose lives are taking contours he cannot understand. As his son inches out of the closet, Tom explains to himself that “sex, or whatever it’s called these days, isn’t everything”; just so, he scarcely recognizes London, now a world city full of strange sights and sounds. Things don’t get more comprehensible as another decade passes and the millennium approaches; Tom huffs and puffs his way uphill, literally and figuratively, acquires a wider and wiser view of things, and extends himself even as everyone else in his bewildering world finds more reason to pull up the carapace.
All very true to life, in other words, with no car chases or explosions. Nothing much happens, but it does so with a world-weary elegance, full of wintry discontent. Mature, knowing and very well done.