Kane's Ladder by Carlos Alba

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Kane's Ladder by Carlos Alba

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: A look at what it was like to be a child in nineteen-seventies Glasgow is laugh-out-loud funny and poignant by turns. Elegant writing and a great plot - highly recommended.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: March 2008
Publisher: Polygon An Imprint of Birlinn Limited
ISBN: 978-1846970474

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Steve Duff comes from a good home. It's not in the best part of Glasgow, but it's definitely separated from Govan by a railway line and the Duffs are buying their house with a mortgage. The family are well fed and clothed, but is Steve content with his lot? Of course, he's not. He wants to be like his best mate, Wally, whose parents are drunkards and who isn't even missed if he doesn't go home at night. Be careful of what you wish for, Steve, for surely it might come true – and in the course of a year, his father is made redundant and has a fling with a barmaid. His mother leaves home and then starts a psychology degree. Elder brother, Tony, gets a girl pregnant and his sister is arrested for demanding money with menaces. And all that's without the normal problems of being a boy on the cliff edge of puberty.

It's the nineteen seventies and despite the 'swinging sixties' a lot of attitudes have been set in concrete since the last war. Single-parent families are social outcasts and it's more acceptable to force young people into a loveless marriage than to acknowledge that there has been sex before the wedding ceremony. The stigma of being in a single-parent family extends to the children too. That's how Johnny Nae Da got his nickname. Well, actually, his full nickname is Johnny Nae Da Wan Baw because of an early accident with a glass coffee table, but the second part is rarely mentioned to save the lad's feelings.

Steve's the narrator of the book and at the age of ten he's on that wonderful edge between childish innocence and knowingness:

Bernie and Fran were the only women who never brought their husbands to Vera and George's lunches. They wore dungarees, shaved their heads and they smoked roll-ups. Dad said they were queer and I could see what he meant. They were definitely a bit odd.

The transition from childhood is captured perfectly. Steve's at the gawky stage and pretending to be a lot more worldly-wise than he really is. He might not know what a shag is but he certainly knows better than to admit as much in front of his mates. And he definitely couldn't be seen talking reasonably to a girl, under any circumstances.

It would be so easy to categorise this book as a comedy of manners, as a social satire or a coming of age book when the truth is that it's all of these things. When that's said about a book, the next sentence is usually a comment that it failed to do any of them well, but that's definitely not the case here. There's the observation of people, the mannerisms caught in a few words and gentle humour which you normally associate with Alan Bennett and a plot which saw me reading into the early hours of the morning to find out what happened to Steve.

I did enjoy this book. I remember the seventies and I remember them as a single parent. Carlos Alba has captured the hypocrisy of the decade perfectly, with the snide comments about the bride's rounded stomach coming from someone who might well have been in the same position herself. The writing is elegant and assured. Sometimes it's laugh-out-loud funny and it would have been easy for the book to descend into farce, to become a collection of good one-liners, but it never does.

I'd like to read more by Carlos Alba, but I have one quibble with the book which he might like to remember before his next work is printed. He's been let down by his publisher. There are a lot of typos which have gone uncorrected or queries from the proofreader which have not been resolved and they're frequent enough to be irritating. It makes a classy book that bit less classy. I'd still like to thank him for sending a copy to the Bookbag though.

If this book appeals then we think that you might also enjoy Autumn Camp by Barry Fowler. For another look at the nineteen seventies, but from a rather different perspective you might like to read our review of Paper Houses by Michele Roberts. We also have a review of Alba's The Songs of Manolo Escobar.

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Buy Kane's Ladder by Carlos Alba at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kane's Ladder by Carlos Alba at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Kane's Ladder by Carlos Alba at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Kane's Ladder by Carlos Alba at Amazon.com.


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