South of the River #bookreview

South of the River by Blake Morrison
On the back my sneak preview to the adventure went as follows:
“It opens on the ‘new dawn’ of Labour’s election victory in 1997, and ends five years later. But this is not so much ‘state of the nation’ as state of our souls, marriages, families, hopes and careers – a sharp and sexy portrait of a dysfunctional group of characters, all different yet connected.
There’s Nat, failed dramatist and reluctant lecturer, falling for a younger woman; Anthea, an eco-friendly lost soul obsessed with foxes; Libby, hardworking mother and advertising executive; Harry, Nat’s friend and ex-pupil, a journalist on a local paper, with a guilty secret of his own; and Jack, Nat’s unexpectedly poignant uncle, who lives for fox-hunting.Intimate and disconcerting, compelling and comic, an anatomy of the way things are, South of the River is the big British novel for our times – and a tour de force.”

I was attracted to the book by it’s title. I’ve lived south of the river for nearly 7 years and have spent the majority of that time working in the areas referenced in the book, Deptford, Peckham etc.  As an aside, I’m a little taken with literary London, I like that feeling of conspiracy when you know the streets the author refers to, or even better the pubs, shops, cafes, restaurants.  It’s like you know a little more about the character by not having to imagine what their backdrop is having experienced it yourself.  However, I feel Morrison has cheated me with the title of this book, the characters don’t have any deep rooted attachment to the area.  The stories are not anchored to the geography, in fact this book could have been set anywhere, and I don’t just mean anywhere in London I literally mean anywhere.  For example, the description of the Pepys estate, where Errol goes missing, fails to encapsulate the deprived, dark, forgotten place the estate was in the post Tory government era.  If I didn’t know better I would say Morrison has never even visited the estate, describing instead what he thinks a poor estate is like.

Having been disappointed with the lack of geography as a key element to the book, I looked with hope to the characters.  Could the dysfunctional group of characters become part of my world and me theirs.  Would I find myself unable to put the book down, a nervous twitch developing as I become frustrated at having to leave the pages and their stories.  A desperate need to know what happens next in their crazy worlds.  In short no.

I feel describing the characters as compelling is laughable, they are about as two dimensional as you can get.  Morrison tries to draw us in with strange uncomfortable phrasing and descriptions.  A chapter where Anthea gets her period is started with a clear aim to make us think Nat has hurt her, with a reference to washing blood away.  It just doesn’t work.  I’m not intrigued by this, I’m not anxious that supposedly loveable useless Nat might have committed murder.  I’m just uncomfortable, I could feel myself screwing up my face as I read each line thinking “really, really, what is this meant to achieve?”

The development of the character Anthea is bizarre to say the least.  A shock departure from her relationship with Nat understandable, a move to Seattle, you’re losing me.  A couple of chapters in Israel and I’m questioning whether I’ve somehow picked up a different book.  It felt almost like Morrison didn’t know what to do with her.  He needed her for the breakdown of Nat and Libby’s marriage, he needed her to be a helpless soul that could give Nat meaning, but then he like us knew that it would never be a lasting relationship.  Anthea could not be the one to live out her days with Nat so how do we move forward? The choice of international aid work may well have been chosen with the use of a magic eight ball or an idea casting with other lost writers.  It just didn’t work.

Libby. So much more could have been made of the successful mother and company director.  The anger and disappointment in Nat and his actions could have been far more passionate.  Instead we have a rather wet unconvincing character.  I don’t believe the woman who immediately feels guilty for calling out her husband’s friend for hiding his affair would be a force to be reckoned with in the board room.  I don’t believe we see any sexy attractive qualities to her so the relationship with the younger seducer Damien feels empty.  If you don’t believe in the qualities of the character you can’t believe in the journey the book takes them on.  Rather than driving forward her business in the fall out from her marriage I expected her to stay at home, drink gin and bake.  The portrayal of her lacked a certain meatiness and va va voom.  Morrison had sketched out the lady he wanted her to be but then failed to fill in the flesh and blood with anything sustainable or believable.

Jack. I sort of understand why his character is included.  A post Tory new Labour world book needs the headstrong business was great under Thatcher character.  However, other than occasional coffee morning chat and some half hearted questions of why people voted and supported Blair and Labour South of the River never actually gets into the political arena of the UK in the Labour years.  As a result, Jack’s character becomes not needed.  If anyone reading this review did enjoy the book they’ll probably be the first to say something about the running theme of foxes and the importance of a fox hunter to balance Anthea “the fox” but again it was something I didn’t feel ever took real substance.  You could take away the fox element and nothing much would be lost from the book, other than a loose reason to have the character Jack.

Harry.  The side kick.  The lost man.  The child still looking for validation in his adult life.  Still looking for someone to say he did the right thing in not being an active father for the first 18 years of Stephen’s life.  Looking for someone to guide his career.  Harry’s character is all too familiar in books with such a clear alpha male, in this case Nat.  However, again Morrison gets it wrong.  I’m not sure if we’re meant to pity Harry, are we meant to cheer for him taking his corner and willing him to solve the big mystery, to right his own demons in the process.  I just found him whiney and irritating, I wouldn’t go as far as to say he is unlikable, despite a certain pathetic nature he’s one of the more compelling characters.  I would say that a lot of that is to do with his chapters covering the development of the missing child plot, maybe Morrison should have left the ‘new dawn’ of Labour idea and just written a good old fashion “who dunnit” complete with court case and divulging lawyers.

I may be completely wrong when I say I felt that I was meant to see Nat Raven as the alpha male.  The mysterious troubled artist.  The misunderstood genius, a philosopher of our time.  I say I was meant to see him like that, but I didn’t.  Again like the other characters there is something missing in the characterisation, in the development of his personality that misses the mark.  There is no justification for Libby’s allowance of his way of life, no journey to the relationship between him and Anthea.  A breakdown that is started and over in the blink of an eye and a relationship with Claire so dull that even Morrison can’t be bother to write about it jumping through time to a settled, sorted father to be Nat.

As the book went on I found myself less and less interested in the characters.  All of their endings seemed to teeter out as if Morrison himself became bored of them.  If I’m honest I almost expected the final line to be the age old school child’s ending of “and then they all woke up and realised it was just a dream!”


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