Thursday, 21 July 2011

Today's Hangover Square

I've just finished reading Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. While I don't want to say too much about the book before we discuss the novel at next Tuesday's WEL Book Group, I think it's a remarkable novel set in a remarkable time. London in 1939, the weeks and days before the declaration of war, sets the tone of the novel in a way no other era could ever do.

Or could it?

Aren't we ourselves going through a quite a remarkable age? From the fast developing digital world, to global warming, international terrorism, last year's MP's expenses debacle, a UK election resulting in a historic coalition government, banking crisis, the recession and today's Euro crisis and the phone hacking scandal, the world and its values are changing in front of our eyes.

So which literary works of today reflect this changing world?

A quick look at the best-seller lists reveals an appetite in the UK for Nordic crime fiction, historical novels, the paranormal and romance. Don't get me wrong, I'm the first one to admit to a passion of all of these genres, but it's strange that so little of today's fiction deals with today's 'real' issues.

Justin Cartwright's Other People's Money recounts the demise of a private banking dynasty. He jutaboxes money versus art in an enjoyable way. It's an enjoyable novel, but I'm not sure it's by far dark enough to match Hangover Square.

Ian McEwan's Saturday and Solar both deal with characters who struggle with today's issues and moral values, while William Boyd too writes in Ordinary Thunderstorms about today's society and its challenges to a man who suddenly finds himself at the  margins of modern life. Again, all three books are fairly tame tales. Where is the punch, the grit?

In The Road Home, Rose Tremain comes somewhere close to describing how some-one at the margins of society might feel. Writing a story from the point of view of a Polish immigrant, who has nothing, while all around him people of London seem to be living the life of utter luxury, comes very close to the Hangover Square territory in its social observation. Still, this novel is so utterly politically correct - which Patrick Hamilton certainly couldn't be accused of being - that it loses its force as a mirror to the underclass of our time.

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas portrays a society so cocooned that a simple event - a man slapping someone else's child (a toddler) - brings it to near breaking point. There's grit here, as well as violence and sex. Many who've read this book feel it's all gratuitous, however.

Room by Emma Donoghue in its way deals with today's issues; the abduction of a young girl turned mother. There's tension, grit and a gripping literary vehicle: we see the world through the eyes of a child who's been kept captive the whole of his short life.

The London Train by Tessa Hadley fails on the grit front, but it does write about ordinary (albeit middle-class) people dealing with extraordinary events. During her reading at England's Lane Books, Tessa remarked on today's lack of authors willing to write about modern life.

So why are we in the UK so in love with crime set in a another country, or novels set in another time? Is it because writing about the past, or reading about bad things happening somewhere else, is easier? I'm not sure, but like Tessa Hadley I'd love the great authors of today to deal with the modern world - and its obvious shortcomings - in a creative and inspirational way.


Rose said...

this may make me a a cultural desert but I didn't know hangover square, it is now on my wish list! I don't know why the British love crime drama wherever it's set, I've thought about this quite a bit actually (I'm a big Agatha fan). I've concluded that I don't know- but that it's a good thing.

Helena Halme said...

Rose, Hangover Sq is such an old book and the author fell out of fashion in the sixties, so you're not alone in not knowing Patrick Hamilton. But do read it if you have time - it is absolutely excellent. x

Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

I have made a list of all of these as the only one I've read is Saturday. Thanks Helena xx