Crusaders by Richard T Kelly

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Crusaders by Richard T Kelly

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: An ambitious debut which doesn't quite live up to expectation but is worth the read for Kelly's ability to evoke the North East in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Cautiously recommended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 560 Date: August 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571228058

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Unsatisfied by his rural parish in Dorset, John Gore accepts a challenge that will mean he returns to his roots in County Durham. It's 1996 and the dying months of a Conservative government which seemed to have the monopoly on sleaze. Gore is to 'plant' a new church in a deprived area to the west of the city of Newcastle which has been ignored by all the regeneration schemes. Starting from scratch, he soon finds that there are three characters who will have a lot of influence on the job he has to do.

The most interesting character in the book is Stevie Coulson, head of a 'security consultancy' and serial steroid abuser. He's a bundle of contradictions - ensuring that the nascent church has an altar one day and resorting to brutish violence another, but with a background which made such behaviour understandable, even inevitable. Richard T Kelly has the man perfectly despite the extremes within him which could have made him a caricature. I'm slightly surprised that the book wasn't built around Coulson as he's definitely Kelly's strength.

Less convincing is Martin Pallister, the local Labour MP. John Gore is linked to him through his sister who advises Pallister. The MP has sculpted his beliefs - political and religious - to fit with the new mood in the Labour Party and there's even a cameo appearance from the next Prime Minister at a local meeting. There's hints of Pallister's corruption and a foreshadowing of how things were to go when Labour came to power.

Lindy Clark, a single mother working various jobs just to get by, is a convincing character but her relationship with Gore is not. I couldn't see any reason why the sexually naïve cleric would have started any sort of non-professional relationship with her. I had no sense of passion or even obsession from him and there was one scene where I was forced to conclude that if a writer can't do sex well then he should do no more than allude to it.

The plot is neat and ingenious. I was more than half expecting something along the lines of what happened, but it was well done, although there were occasions when I thought that the plot could have benefited from toppling into the absurd or even the hilarious, as humour was in short supply. Unfortunately it's necessary to set against the good plot the author's esoteric use (purists might go as far as calling it abuse) of the English language. Words have meanings and they really should be used to convey that meaning and not for effect. I'm in the rather odd situation of commending Kelly's grasp of Geordie - which came off the page beautifully without making the speakers sound like morons - whilst suggesting that he could benefit from a better grasp of the English language.

Where Kelly excels is in his evocation of time and place. Although the book is set in the late nineteen nineties it ranges back over twenty years and provides a sharp picture of the decline of industry in the area. I lived in Durham in the nineteen sixties and his words on the Durham Miners' Gala brought a lump to my throat as I walked the streets with the miners and picnicked afterwards. Perfect. He's equally good with his fictional settings, particularly the run-down suburb of Hoxheath, where the buses all run north/south, despite the fact that people actually want to travel east/west.

I've carped, haven't I? It comes down to an excess of expectation both before I read the book and in the early pages when I really did think that this might be the definitive Geordie novel. It isn't and it's difficult to think of what is, but I was left thinking that this book had a lot of potential - it's big and it's brave - and Kelly is certainly one to watch for the future. It was an ambitious debut and a rigorous rewriting could have made it into the great novel I was expecting.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

For a book set in a similar time you might enjoy South of the River by Blake Morrison.

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