Tragedy and farce combine in a Scottish-born poet’s notable debut novel, which follows an innocent abroad in London during one very hot, transformative summer.
In a spiky modern comedy with dark undertones, the English whom Clanchy introduces are mainly Londoners, many of them with origins in other nations, like successful Welsh novelist and playwright Phillip Prys, felled by a stroke in the book’s opening pages. Phillip’s incapacity galvanizes his second wife, Myfanwy, and her children, drawing them—and their mixed motives—to Phillip’s lovely and valuable home in Yewtree Row, now the residence of his third wife, beautiful Iranian artist Shirin. Into this complicated and unreliable family group walks Struan Robertson, a clever, upright but unworldly 17-year-old from Scotland, hired on the strength of experience gained in an old people’s home, to take care of Phillip. Issues of life and death, money and sex swirl around the characters in the suffocating heat of the summer of 1989, which lends a sultry, sometimes-magical edge, especially in the sylvan setting of Hampstead Heath and its swimming ponds. Struan’s coming-of-age will be matched by transformations near and far, several of the local ones involving mismatched young couples, reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Clanchy’s prose is striking, moving easily from sharp to lyrical, while the predicaments in Yewtree Row swoop from serious to slapstick. In particular, the passages devoted to Phillip’s perspective—a larger-than-life character now trapped within a silent, slack body—movingly capture his new, remote, sometimes-terrifying dream world. As autumn arrives and the heat of this momentous year (think Berlin Wall, Tiananmen Square) dissipates, Clanchy pushes her characters forward in a final flourish both grave and graceful.
Fresh, funny and at times piercing, Clanchy’s novel introduces a savvy, impressive new voice.