Four New Words for Love by Michael Cannon

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Four New Words for Love by Michael Cannon

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Scott Kemp
Reviewed by Scott Kemp
Summary: Despite a stunning start, Michael Cannon's Four New Words for Love is let down by stylistic errors and a rushed conclusion. As such, some potentially unforgettable characters are sacrificed to the requirements of plot.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 229 Date: August 2013
Publisher: Freight Books
ISBN: 978-1908754240

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Christopher meets Gina on Waterloo Bridge. He is newly widowed, she is newly homeless; he's an elderly Londoner, she's a young Glaswegian. It is a defining event in both their lives, but that only becomes clear in the future. Of pressing concern in the present is the rather rude policeman looking to move Gina on. The situation is nearing crisis. Sensing her desperation, Christopher impulsively asks her to come home with him, a proposal she tentatively accepts. Yet it is this one benevolent act that gives birth to an odd and platonic friendship, a relationship based on silences and lacunas, and one which Michael Cannon's fourth novel, Four New Words for Love, looks to delicately unravel.

That, then, in terms of plot, is the book's main event, and being the main event, you'd expect it to come near the beginning. Its arrival, however, comes at the midpoint of the narrative. Prior to this moment, Cannon has given us two large chunks of backstory, the first told by Gina, the second by an omniscient narrator whose focus rests solely on Christopher. We learn that Gina's life is a dead-end affair beset by various tragedies, while Christopher's has been ruined by a snobby wife who 'spoke for over half a century and never said anything'. As entertaining as these backstories are, the big meeting between the two feels a little forced, as there has been nothing to suggest that Christopher would really ask Gina home and that she would actually accept. Frankly, it doesn't add up.

But that is due to the novel's architecture. Unfortunately, Cannon's design is far too rigid and far too reliant on its contrasting relationships: everything is polarised. As such, the two characters are forced to embody blunt oppositions: old/young, male/female, rich/poor, English/Scottish. There should have been two novels. Gina's story is interesting on its own, and so is Christopher's, but together they seem to jar, and the novel starts its decrescendo as soon as they meet. As unlikely as it seems, then, this disparate duo go on to establish an unconventional ménage, but a stray comment from Christopher leads Gina to selfishly disappear, thereby forcing him to follow her to Glasgow, where everything in her past is revealed. Cannon unwisely rushes this part, desperate to squeeze it all in, yet all he does is leave his two characters stranded, each deprived of enough room to breathe and effervesce.

If the book doesn't quite cohere, then the prose doesn't help either. There is nothing actually wrong with it, but that's its central problem: the style stays the same throughout. Whether it's a first- or third-person narration, the voice is always measured and correct. Although this may seem like a good thing, the implementation of pure English has an adverse effect on the novel's realism. Bizarrely, Cannon makes absolutely no attempt to convey the Scottish dialect, his only concession being the occasional 'wee'. If he wished to explore the massive differences between his characters, both socially and linguistically, he should have made their styles different too. As it is, they all sound like Julian Barnes, and nothing like the slangy, realistic protagonists of Irvine Welsh. But, that being said, Cannon is a master of the crude yet striking image, such as when Gina's alcoholic father is described as having a 'face like a roadmap' and a 'volcanic cough that sometimes spots the furniture with glistenings of lung'. Such examples - some of which cannot be repeated here - pepper the narrative and go some way to saving the book.

But they do not go far enough, and the novel's end is a bitter disappointment. Cannon is so talented, and so enjoyable to read, that Four New Words for Love feels like a missed opportunity. For the first half of the book he is able to make us empathise with his characters, to feel their vicissitudes; why, then, does he give us an ending that destroys our patience with Gina, and why do we suddenly feel she is a reckless individual whose final act (delivered in the third person) cannot be reconciled with the Gina we have got to know (in the first person). It's an incongruous and sloppy conclusion, and one that doesn't take into account all that has gone before. Are we supposed to admire Gina? It would seem so. But her methods for spiritual renewal are shoddy, and Christopher's silence makes him seem like a dithering doormat who won't speak out against her immorality. And that, surely, is not what Cannon was looking to achieve.

If you wish to read a faithful rendering of the Scottish vernacular (or as close as it comes) then Reheated Cabbage by Irvine Welsh is a coarse yet entertaining success.

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