A couple of years ago I enjoyed The Third Party, the latest novel by local (to me) author Glenn Patterson. When I wanted to read more by him, I went for his fifth novel, smartly titled Number 5, which is the only one of his books to be consistently in print by a national publisher since its first appearance. (His earlier novels had slipped out of print but are now available again through Belfast’s Blackstaff Press.)
Number 5 (2003) is a high-concept book: it tells the stories of the people who have lived in one house over several decades. It sounds like the sort of thing which must have been done before, though I can only think of books which cover different occupants of apartment blocks at the same time, such as Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual or Elif Shafak’s The Flea Palace. (Suggestions welcome.) Unlike those books, this is a relatively simple and linear story, though not without cleverness and bite.
Often reviews will claim that a building or place ‘becomes a character’ in the book. Here, instead, the building becomes the link between the characters and also what causes their divisions.
Each story of 50 pages or so opens with the estate agent’s brochure for the house: number 5 in an unnamed road. When the book begins, in the late 1950s, the street is a new development on the outskirts of pre-troubles Belfast (“Pleasantly situated in healthy rural surroundings, yet ideally convenient to shops and all four main churches”). By the end, at the close of the century, the blurb instead highlights proximity to the newest place of Sunday worship (“the attraction of this ever-popular development will be enhanced by the Little Lake shopping centre (with Tesco superstore) opening June 1997″). In between, we see the flow of change as gentrification, affluence and developing tastes alter the interior, from “dinette” and “attractive plastic cupboard tops” to “slate work surfaces” and “high-tensile steel shelf supports.” It reflects, too, as the residents come and go, changing domestic life: from the nuclear family to the house-sharing friends.
Naturally, the people living in number 5 change too, as do their view of what’s socially acceptable: when the Falloons live there, in the 1950s, Stella Falloon watches with caution as one neighbour “brought a kitchen chair out to the south-facing front of his house” and worries that this is too close to what she thought she had left behind. In the end she might be more concerned about what is yet to come: one might sigh at the prospect of the Troubles rearing their head in a Northern Ireland novel, but here Patterson manages to make it both key to the book and somehow incidental to the real life going on all around. A terrible incident will puncture Stella’s life, and punctuate the book at beginning and end, bringing back characters and providing a sense of completeness.
If this completeness seems a touch too close to neatness, it nonetheless works because of the book’s tone: it has a likeability and charm which comes through the ordinariness of the characters. It seems contrary to the spirit of such a book to say that it ‘deals with issues’ – but there is plenty here dealt lightly, incorporating nice plot twists such as a woman who gradually loses her family to Christianity, or the Chinese family (for decades, Chinese were the only ethnic minority in Belfast) whose experience of racism is not quite what it seems. When the son goes into his parents’ restaurant:
[a] few young men walked in out of the dark and sat at the tables nearest the door waiting for takeaways. I think they were disturbed to see so many of us in one place – there could be fifteen, twenty, sometimes more – and I imagined them waking in sweats from dreams where their world was reversed and they were the odd men out, the curiosities.
As in any book set in the recent past, Number 5 is not short of handy cultural references to the times. Occasionally these are heavy-handed (“You should consider yourself lucky,” says one woman to another who can’t get pregnant, “half the women in the world are praying for a pill to stop it”), but elsewhere brain-proddingly nostalgic (the mention of Gloy gum set off a chain of schoolboy memories for me: that brown gloop! The rubbery wedge tip!). Patterson also has a neat facility for evocative images, as with an alcoholic whose complexion “separated into a thousand broken veins and blood vessels, an intricate map of all the wrong roads he had taken.”
Finally it is not the locality, or the nostalgia, or the cleverness which pleases, but the strength in character-building: each story features several new people, and Patterson sets himself a significant task to create them all fully in a few dozen pages, but he manages it. Number 5 is Patterson number two for me, and makes me look forward to number three all the more.