South of the River by Blake Morrison

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South of the River by Blake Morrison

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: Blake Morrison's state-of-the-nation novel follows the fortunes of five people in middle class London in the early years of the Blair premiership. It's well-written with good characterisation and Bookbag hopes you'll read it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 528 Date: March 2007
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701180461

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South of the River is billed as Blake Morrison's great state-of-the-nation novel. In other words, one of those worthy, wordy and ditch-water dull fat books about everything and nothing. Thankfully, this is not one of those.

Libby is a woman having success in the world of advertising, but not much luck at home. Husband Nat is a wannabe writer, a poor teacher - he spends too long deciding what should be his working method and not nearly enough working. Their marriage doesn't have a great future.

Nat's uncle Jack is slowly watching his family's lawnmower company grind to a halt. Nat's best friend Harry, a mediocre black journalist who sees race problems where there aren't any, is plodding along, waiting for a break. Anthea, the fifth of our main characters, works for the council - main focus, trees.

All five then have unhappy or uninteresting lives - but how? This is May 1997 - the New Dawn - Tony Blessed Blair's first election. Surely over the years to come there will be a resurgence in their fortunes, their romances, their careers, their lives' chances?

The book, thankfully, avoids any pretentiousness about its pattern - five people, seen through five time-windows on important days (the day after the election, the day before Millennium Eve etc) in five years. There are flashbacks to times in-between - to add past history, to correct our assumptions. The storylines are practically linear, but merge, diverge - crossing and meeting at times, at other times jumping slightly away from each other.

The book could have played its fox theme too much, too. Everyone's story has a fox somewhere - literary inspiration, a target for Jack to hunt, a mutated killer of an urban myth for Harry to suspect. It makes for an interesting thread, which is well-used. Were the book much shorter it might have been too much, but with the length of South of the River as it is, it's not overdone.

I've not read Blake Morrison before, outside Granta journalism, but it's clear that he writes a good character. Every chapter is subtitled after its main protagonist, and the omniscient narrator nails everyone - male, female, black, white. Anthea's motives throughout her relationship scenes are spot on; Libby, with the triumvirate of her problems - work, spouse, kids - ditto. There is certainly the opportunity to have been too heavy-handed - forcing ill-fortune on somebody and trying to over-egg the sympathy, but this does not happen.

I'll leave you, hopefully wanting to read this book, wondering which of the five characters has an unsatisfactory ending (I couldn't not mention that). You'll also want to second-guess which five days between 1997 and 2002 are used (you'll be wrong).

I'm still not really sure if any book deserves to be 520 pages, but reading this, you get the impression this one does. It doesn't appear at all heavy-handed, forcing any capital-P Politics, or sense of regret or sarcasm about the Blair years. It was refreshing for me to have a story (one almost feels like misusing the word saga) about five people over five years that isn't soapy, isn't full of verbiage, isn't too flowery - but is expansive enough to firmly ground its characters in the politics and society of middle-class London. It all seems to ring true, and it's not too long, drat it.

Read South of the River for a very good inter-weaving of interesting stories, creating a compelling whole.

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Jill said:

Oh, I rejected reading this because I thought it would be overblown, despite fancying the premise. I'm in hearty concurrence with there rarely being a necessity for 520 pages. Darnit.