January 23, 2008
Charles Lambert: Little Monsters
Apologies to anyone who has spotted that some recent posts here have been about books not yet released. I’ve been lucky to pick up advance copies of a few titles, and if – surely we are agreed – a newly acquired book is much more enticing as a potential read than an old book, then a book which is so new it hasn’t even been published yet, must have double enticement, enticement squared. Anyway, I hope any frustration about not being able to buy these titles yet will be outweighed by the interest piqued in treats to come. I have only a couple left anyway, so normal service will be resumed. Plus, if I waited the month or so till publication before writing about them, I’d be scratching my head trying to remember what they were about again.
Charles Lambert’s Little Monsters is a first novel which is more than just a ‘promising debut’; it breaks through promise and into solid achievement. Admittedly the author is not your traditional debutante, and when a new kid on the block is not a kick in the arse off Paul Torday’s late-starter age, we might expect good things. I was not disappointed. The book rings with an impressive assurance, and the aplomb with which Lambert handles his explicit themes put me in mind of Peter Ho Davies’s The Welsh Girl, one of my favourites of last year. It’s a traditional novel but knotty enough for modern sensibilities; and like Davies’s novel, it takes a girl as its central character and creates an affecting parable of belonging and escape.
Carol opens her story with an attention-grabbing line:
When I was thirteen, my father killed my mother.
and if that seems a touch showy, then be warned that Lambert does at times prefer to depict clearly what the reader might prefer to work out for themselves. Within these limitations, however, the characters are strongly drawn and smoothly defined. Carol goes to stay with her aunt Margot, who appears not to have felt any particular loss, to say the least, with the murder of her sister (“your mother was a whore”). She has a son, Nicholas, who is not much more welcoming than Margot is, and then there is Uncle Joey, who is not aunt Margot’s partner or lover but a Polish refugee called Jozef. They run a pub:
None of us had a home. We lived and ate and slept around the borders of a public space that influenced everything we did; our lives were peripheral to its needs, its hours. It always puzzles me to read about pubs or hotels with a family atmosphere. How do they manage it? What do they know what we didn’t? What we had was the opposite: a family with the atmosphere of a pub.
All this is being recalled in retrospect by Carol: now, fortysomething years later, she has made a life with Jozef, who is twenty years her senior. The frisson this knowledge gives us – what happened there exactly? – adds greatly to the atmosphere of darkness under the surface of the story. In the present day, Carol and Jozef are living in Italy and become involved with an Albanian refugee girl called Kakuna: her sullen violence seems to Carol a cry for help, she remembers her own difficulty in fitting in, and so the parallels between past and present are established.
This neatness and completeness is something which runs through Little Monsters: the title is echoed in several aspects, the themes of flight and family secrets, bullying and belonging, precisely set out on the page. Secondary characters like Carol’s schoolfriend Patricia are well drawn, and there are dramatic endings to both concurrent storylines. Only a last-page revelation by Jozef seemed to upset this, and to leave much more to be said. By then, however, I was satisfied, and looking forward to what Lambert does next. Just don’t wait another 54 years for us to find out, Mr L.