Intermission by Owen Martell

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Intermission by Owen Martell

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Iain Wear
Reviewed by Iain Wear
Summary: A well observed story that may be a little downbeat and slow moving for some, but is made wonderful by being perfectly written.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: January 2013
Publisher: William Heinemann
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0434022045

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There is a line in Alan Bennett's play The History Boys that I love. It talks about subjunctive history, imagining things that might have happened. In Intermission, his first book in English as opposed to Welsh, Owen Martell borrows this idea, taking an event a surmising what may have happened afterwards.

The event in this case is the death of Scott LaFaro, bass player for jazz group The Bill Evans Trio, who was killed in a car crash shortly after a series of concerts in New York in June 1961. History records that band leader Bill Evans went on hiatus for a spell after LaFaro's death and Intermission suggests what may have been going on in his life during this period.

Bill's story is told in four parts from the perspective of those closest to him; his brother Harry, his parents Mary and Harry Senior and, finally, Bill himself. It charts the time Bill spends with his family as he takes some time and space to deal with the tragedy, firstly with Harry and his family in New York and then with Mary and Harry senior in Florida. We get to see how various members of the family relate to each other and the distances, both emotional and physical, that time has put between them.

The story is very well written and the four parts have their distinctive voices and their differing themes. Harry's is told in the dull voice of someone who has watched their younger brother overtake them and you sense his jealousy as Bill's relationship with Harry's daughter Debby threatens to overtake his own. Whereas his story frequently looks backwards, Mary's and Harry Senior's are mostly concerned with the present, wanting to do what they can to help their son. Mary tries to do this by treating him like her little boy, Bill by treating him like a man. Bill's section, as he returns to his old life, is the only one that shows much glimpse of a future and this section is brighter in tone and a little flightier, reflecting the jazz musician that Bill is.

The quality of the writing was what kept me reading more than anything else. Harry's opening section had a slightly noir feel to it, reflecting more the times of Raymond Chandler than the 1960s setting of the book. The sections written from the perspectives of Bill's parents had the slower nature of a couple still trying to find ways to spend their time now their children are grown and the only work to be done is on a garden slowly wilting under the high Florida temperatures. Bill's section had all the feel of a musician returning to life and gave a real sense of recovery and rebirth, like he was a butterfly escaping his cocoon of grief and finding out what his wings are for.

The only issue I found with the story was that, as it was snapshots of life, it didn't go anywhere much. With a main character being a jazz musician in the 1960s, I expected a little more life than I found. The whole story, up until the very end, takes on a downbeat cast that is more dirge than jazz. Although the writing reflects well on the downbeat nature of the story as a whole, there was nothing in the story I found particularly gripping.

That said, for readers who revel in the beauty of great writing, there is much here to enjoy and this is made only more admirable by it being Martell's first novel in the language. For those like me who prefer to read for escapism and entertainment, there may be something a little lacking until the latter stages. There is, however, more than enough here to suggest than Martell's name will grow in time and whilst it may not be spoken with in quite the same reverence Bill Evans is held in jazz circles, there may well be acclaim beyond the Wales Book of the Year award one of his earlier novels has already won.

For other snapshots of lives, albeit in a wider range, Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle is also incredibly well written.

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