I chose to read this book because it was shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards in the category of Best First Novel. I often feel I don’t read enough acclaimed modern fiction tending to either choose non-fiction, classics or, when giving new stuff a try, very light-hearted modern romances or comedy. So this was a little different for me.
The novel is about a young man in his first job after University. He is a bit of a lost soul who doesn’t seem to have friends and has a troubled relationship with his parents. He moves to London to make a new start and gets a job working in the kitchen of a gastropub. The book is written as a fictional memoir of his experiences over the course of six months or so.
It was a strange book and my reactions to it were inconsistent. I liked aspects and not others and liked and disliked different things about it at different stages. For example, I found the writing style rather juvenile, which worked at times (it was the story of a very young man) but at other times I found it irritating – the use of lists of ‘amusing’ definitions reminded me of a very inferior Adrian Mole’s Diary. I also found the setting of the novel inadequately described, the location of the pub, The Swan, is a very scruffy street where homeless people congregate;
“The Swan is on a street immediately parallel with Camden High Street that get’s none of it’s big sister’s traffic. Unless you have business on that street, or you take a wrong turn, you would never visit it….The people you find on this street are guests at the boarding houses…you might see the odd door-to-door salesman in blazer and brown shoes…or you might spot a vagrant looking for a quiet place to shit or shoot up.”
Doesn’t sound great does it? And the pub itself is described as being shabby with a moth eaten stuffed fox above the bar and at one stage they are temporarily closed down for poor hygiene. But on the other hand they have a whole team of chefs and team of waiting staff working there, plus the food sounds amazing; lobsters, caramelised pears, souffle – all cooked to an exacting standard, food sent back if it’s deemed not up to scratch. And they’re always busy. But who are these customers buying expensive food from a run down pub on a scruffy street? I can’t quite picture the scenario and Simon Wroe doesn’t enlighten me.
I found myself rather dissatisfied with my juvenile protagonist in his unlikely scenario as I neared the midpoint of the novel, I considered giving it up but…there was something about the writing and characters that kept me clinging on. And I was right to! About half way through the plot develops from a general description of the difficulties of kitchen work and youth to something much darker. The protagonist (whose name we never discover by-the-way) is asked to help out at some rather sinister dinner parties and his whinging about his average middle class family background start to hint that there is something worse in his own past than bickering parents in the boring suburbs. The novel is much improved once the more complex plot kicks in.
Overall I found it an intriguing but unsatisfactory novel. I think Simon Wroe has great potential as a writer and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next.