Sunday, 7 June 2009

Helen Walsh - Once Upon a Time in England (Canongate 2009)

Helen Walsh's broody, moody and quite frankly depressing 'Once Upon a Time in England' is a brutal deconstruction of a family falling apart. Set in and around Warrington from the 70s to present, it follows the Fitzgeralds: Robbie is a working man's club singer extraordinaire guilted into giving up his dreams of singing for a living when beautiful wife Susheela is the victim of a violent rape at the hands of local racists. Their existence folds in around the rape, which she keeps secret and its ensuing effects on the rest of their lives. She grows agoraphobic and aspirational, trying to keep up with the neighbours, a sallow shallow bunch of ladies who lunch, while Robbie gives up his dreams and good looks to work excessively in factories, wiling away broken pipe dreams into the shopline. Their celibate lives drive Robbie to bathroom distraction and later, affairs, while Susheela drives herself to Manchester to spend afternoons sampling the secret delights of spicy curries, something Robbie hates. One secret begets many others. Their children, a writer and a space cowgirl, experiment with homosexuality and drugs and soon the separate lives they all lead become burdens around their necks during uncomfortable family time. The secrets they hold are powerful macguffins that affect their lives over many decades. The spiral of the fallout from Susheela's initial rape creates a catalyst of broken dreams and broken promises as the Fitzgerald family slowly implode in the confines of their suburban prison. Walsh is a fine writer, honest and descriptive and able to keep track of her four main protagonists, colouring each in with regret and misery and even mystery. Eldest son Vince is a quiet enigmatic talent while Ellie is a spacy but boisterous force. Susheela has her secrets and rigid constructs of life, while Robbie is a regretful broken man. This is a tiny microcosm of northern suburban life, both unflinching and willing to run its characters through the mill, and it's this honesty that keeps it powerful throughout. Again, another Canongate triumph.

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