A Booker finalist examines the calamity of addiction in 1970s London.
Colette Jones’s family has an alcohol problem. Her brother Janus Brian is satisfied with homemade liqueurs until his wife dies, at which point he turns to gin and—on one occasion—shoe polish. Her eldest brother, Lesley, drinks only at the pub, but when he does, he does so until he falls down (possibly naked from the waist down). Her daughter Juliette is married to a butcher whose Socialist politics are fueled by massive quantities of ale. And Colette herself begins each day with a barley wine and ends it with sleeping pills (now that she’s no longer sniffing glue). The family members without drinking problems of their own are plagued by the habits of their loved ones. The real troublemaker, though, is Colette’s eldest son, Janus. His alcoholism is epic, entrenched and utterly corrosive. Colette, her brothers and her son-in-law drink for solace and sociability, but Janus’s need runs soul-deep, and if the emptiness he is trying to fill is never explicitly defined, it is nevertheless undeniable. An unpredictable and sometimes violent drunk, Janus circumscribes and damages the lives of everyone around him, and his self-destruction is as inevitable as it is sad and a bit of a relief. This tale is tragic, but it’s also funny and touching. Woodward depicts his wounded characters with unalloyed honesty. Colette and her family are prodigious drinkers, but they are neither grotesques nor cartoons, and their stories unfold without unseemly drama or a sense of voyeurism. Woodward is absolutely unsentimental, and he makes no excuses for his characters—but his unflinching, dispassionate attention is itself a kind of grace.
Intensely humane and elegantly written.