The concluding novel in a solid trilogy chronicling post–World War II northern English life.
Bragg (A Son of War, 2003, etc.) pulls together his thoughtful story of the Richardson family by foregrounding the next generation, namely Joe, the sensitive son of Burma Campaign veteran Sam, now a pub landlord. From a fragmented opening, the schoolboy's narrative emerges to encompass developing identity and academic striving against the proud background of Wigton, a fictional town representative of Bragg's beloved Cumbria. Spanning 1955 to 1959, Joe's is a story of late development as adolescence gives way to his developing sexuality and passions for music, both rock-’n’-roll and classical. His affections are captured by Rachel Wardlow, the independent daughter of a local farmer, and they begin to date. Bragg is not a natural storyteller, but his affection for place, history and community anchor the narrative. The mood of England in the 1950s, a time of post-war reinvigoration when fresh ideas emerged, sometimes unsettling the generation who fought, is also evocatively pinpointed by cultural reference. Joe is clever enough to become a scholarship boy, part of a movement to dilute the class elitism at Oxford and Cambridge via a funded transfusion of regional and working-class intelligence. In keeping with the themes of masculinity and physical violence that seam the story, Sam hopes that Oxford will toughen Joe up. And Joe is undoubtedly jolted by the cultural shift when he arrives at the university which he finds `a bit posh` as well as intellectually intimidating. Homesick and lovesick, Joe hangs on to his relationship with Rachel, and the couple get engaged, but Rachel eventually breaks it off, leaving Joe cast properly adrift into his future. Things change, but not, perhaps, Sam's departing, resonant advice to Joe: “Be decent to people.”
An intelligent tribute to a heroic era and its aftermath, short on poetry but not on gravitas.