Top critical review
Has great potential, but ultimately misfires
on 28 November 2015
I won't go into the generalities of the book, as they have been covered by other reviewers. I liked this book and found it to be touching and sensitively handled by Amis. The one downside that I can see with it (although it's quite a big downside), is that from the early chapters, the premise was built up that the returning couple, Alun and Rhiannon Weaver, would be the main focus of the story as it went forward. Yet whilst this is true to an extent, I don't think Amis followed through enough with this. Such a figure, made out to be a cross between Melvyn Bragg, Richard Burton (who was friends with Dylan Thomas, who Weaver's friend and rival Bryden was modelled on) and perhaps a right-wing Neil Kinnock, was clearly the most interesting male character in the book, and I think much could have been made out of his adventures filming his television series about Wales, the people he met doing it, and maybe drawing out his relationship with his past life in London and what it meant to be an exile and how challenging it was to go back home when you had moved on in life.
But Amis instead saw fit to make him just another character in a suburban melodrama in a peri industrial, semi rural location in South Wales. The characters of Malcolm, Peter and Charlie are boorish old men who should have stayed peripheral to the adventures of Weaver, certainly not deserving long tracts of chapters devoted to their humdrum lives. There were snatches of dialogue about how one of these characters had noted how they hadn't seen Alun for some time, and I was left wanting to know what he was getting up to as opposed to what breakfast Malcolm was having. I think this also means that the story lacks any real central thrust, with the reader not knowing enough about characters because there are too many of them. (Should we think that the story is really about Malcolm, Peter, Rhiannon, Charlie, Gwen or Muriel?)
I don't think Amis knew what to do with the Alun Weaver character once he had introduced him to the story. He is clearly a successful journalist and writer (the pre-eminent cultural authority on Wales who makes serious television programmes on one of the four terrestrial channels (this being 1986)); he clearly would have lived in a Surbiton, Finchley or Chiswick as opposed to a council estate in Bermondsey; his daughter had obviously gone to a good grammar, top comprehensive or private school, as she was now at Oxford; he is introduced to us as being confident and outgoing. Yet for all of that, and for all of the other males having a grudging respect for him as the alpha male of the pack (despite their knowledge of his clear and present danger to their wives), he ends up living as a nobody in the middle of nowhere, with no one interested in him. He might have been arrogant or preening, but Amis doesn't allow him to be so, rather he just allows him to vegetate and get drunk for no apparent reason.
From what promised to be a thoroughly interesting character, revered by his pals and acquaintances at the beginning, we find that by the end no one seems to give a damn that he has died very suddenly at a relatively early age. It is hard to believe that a man constantly coveted and inquired about as being such a boon and drinking companion, the man Malcolm, Charlie and Peter seem to want to be around the most, is not mourned one iota when he suddenly and tragically dies at a relatively young age. His wife doesn't seem to mourn him, nor does his still very young daughter (early twenties I'd imagine at the most considering she's studying at university and it would seem is not a mature student) seem to care that he has died. You'd at least expect her to raise it during her wedding, such as 'I so wish my father had been here to give me away' type of sentiment, but no, nothing. Her new husband, who had met Alun, turns to Peter at the wedding and basically says that he is glad his father in law is dead and that he thought he was 'a s***'. To this Peter concurs. One is left with the impression that Alun Weaver was some sort of serial killer as opposed to a highly respected writer and journalist. For me it is a strange end to the book and strange treatment of a character that doesn't ring true.
As for his wife...she is presented as a trophy wife, yet she comes across more Norma Major than Samantha Cameron. She has less go in her than the other women characters (although it must be said that she clearly knows about her husband's dalliances), and even Muriel who ups and moves to Middlesbrough, seems far more of a cosmopolitan character.
So whilst I enjoyed the book, and perhaps that is why I feel so keen to review it is because I did enjoy it, I think I could have enjoyed it more. Beyond the misfiring of the Weaver couples' characters, as with 'Lucky Jim', I felt that Amis has the ability to set things up with brilliant and complex moves, only for the punch-line to misfire. The dialogue has the potential to make this a comic classic, but there are too many times when he fails to ultimately pull off the gags. A decent enough book, but not one of the better Booker winners perhaps.