A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Donna Wells
Reviewed by Donna Wells
Summary: A beautifully crafted story of an outsider who through the intimacy of the narrative becomes a firm insider with the reader.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: February 2010
Publisher: Vintage Classics
ISBN: 978-0099548829

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If you've ever wanted to know what goes on inside someone's mind you'll love this short novel, first published back in 1964. We join George Falconer just at the moment he awakes from sleep and witness his innermost thoughts as he goes about a typical day. It all sounds pretty dull and monotonous but what makes this exciting is that George isn't just any old professor living the American Dream, oh no, he's so detached from the banal normality of the world that he's almost outside of his own body at times.

George is an outsider; he's an Englishman in America, a 60 year old surrounded by young teenage students, a gay living in a heterosexual world and insightful while those around him are blinded by commercialism and the perfect life portrayed in 1960s advertising. He's alive whilst being haunted by the dead – specifically Jim - his lover killed in a car accident, and depressed whilst trying to make the most of each moment.

Confused? Well I think George might be too and what's wonderful is that we share the highs and lows with him. We're with him when he seems to break free, and goes for a late night dip to take out all his frustration on the battling waves. Equally, we're also there when painful reminders of Jim seem to spring out of nowhere and remind George of what he's lost.

I imagine when it was first released this novel was far more shocking than readers will find it today. The views expressed by some of the minor characters towards homosexuality as something deserving pity, or that can be fixed by a passionate kiss from an old friend (Charley) are backward and frustrating. However, that's a sign of the time it was written in, rather than any fault with the novel which is attempting to speak out.

With the heavy subject matter you'd be mistaken in thinking that reading this was a bit of a slog. Not so, the real beauty of this tale is in the language and through the humour, for instance George's deepest ponderings are set sharply against the backdrop of the loo – sitting on the john, he can look out of the window…the cottages that used to reek of bathtub gin and reverberate with the poetry of Hart Crane have fallen to the occupying army of coke-drinking television-watchers. Such a contrast can't help but make you smile and grimace at the same time.

For me this novel has echoes of Revolutionary Road, with complex individuals wanting to live outside of the suffocating, mid 20th century, American stereotype. Just as the Wheelers want to break free from neighbours that are as wooden as the fences that divide them, so George wants to live a life beyond the act he portrays every day and be accepted for who he is. By the end of the novel, I defy any reader to not accept George, the narrative is so intimate, the connection so strong and the commentary so sharp, that you feel you know George inside out.

One last thing to note is that this has been made into a film due for release in the UK on 12th February 2010. It stars Colin Firth and Julianne Moore and is hotly-tipped as a potential Oscar frontrunner. If it sticks to the honesty of this thought provoking tale it should do well but naturally I'd recommend reading this book first.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy The Outcast by Sadie Jones, Atonement by Ian McEwan or On Chesil Beach by the same author. For a completely different insight into 1950s America you might enjoy something more light hearted – The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson.

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Buy A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood at Amazon.com.


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