Notwithstanding is not only the title of Louis De Bernieres latest book it is also really the biggest character in the book. Notwithstanding is a fictional village somewhere in Surrey, England not too far away from the very real Haslemere and Godalming. What the book actually entails is some of the unusual and interesting characters and the stories of what they get up to. It is in fact based on an English village that the author actually lived in when he was younger though this isn't a memoir it's a fictionalised version. It brings to life those English idylls that are very much still out there and celebrates the quirkiness of village life.
The characters are all marvellous in the novel. I say novel but in many ways it reads like a collection of short stories which is what it also is I suppose though characters intertwine with stories and so it comes together as a novel. You have the marvellous mother and son who communicate to each other via walkie talkie... in the same house, Polly Wantage who dresses like a man and spends most of her time out shooting squirrels, several mad dogs, a general who spends most of his time naked, a spiritualist who lives with her sister and ghost of her dead husband and people who confide their biggest secrets with spiders in their garden sheds. It is a huge amount of fun.
Though this isn't just a funny throw away book. Though there is endless humour the book has a real heart, celebrating the ordinary and delighting in the quirky nature of us English folk. The prose is beautiful and makes everything very vivid so in no time I felt like I had newly moved into the village and was `getting to know the neighbours' as it were. I could happily have moved there tomorrow. De Bernieres also experiments in less than 300 pages with various genre's of fiction, there is the comic side but we also have a historical tale of the village of old, a ghost story and a mystery.
There are also some tales which on the outside seem to be fun and light but read on and they become much darker and deeper. Two of the stories moved me greatly and one was incredibly sad. The one which hit me most was that of the naked general who ends up in Waitrose with no pants on, at first I was laughing away and then realised that this isn't a tale of a nudist but a tale of a widowed man who only has his dog for company and is undergoing the onset of Alzheimers. Not so funny then is it, yet in earlier tales its hilarious.
The tale that actually nearly made me cry on two levels was `Rabbit', which also appeared in a collection of shorts by Picador in 2001. This is the tale of friends walking through the fields to find a rabbit with myxomatosis which is described in detail (and is just upsetting) so one of the party decides to go get his gun and put it out of its misery. In doing so the act itself is so horrid to the elderly man it brings back all the killings he endured during his time in the war and even the mercy killing of a friend. A very clever, breathtaking and emotional tale told in just ten pages.
All in all a fanstactic funny, moving and engaing read that makes you laugh, think and possibly cry... oh and want to move to the nearest village as fast as you can.