Jerry Manville is a retired ad-man who has two ex-wives, three kids, an expanding paunch, a red 1972 Lotus and a penchant for YouTube clips in which attractive TV presenters cross their legs. More endearingly, he has a thing for fancy stationery (which he buys to calm himself down).
When Jerry and his first wife Pen got married they renovated their house in North London with their own hands, turning it into a dream home envied by all. Pen stayed in the house after the divorce but later moved into her second husband’s farm house in France (falling in love at first sight with the farmhouse, if not the second husband).
Fifteen years earlier Pen had written a wildly successful children’s book series featuring her and Jerry’s two children, Isobel and Conrad, and their North London home. The series, called “The House on the Hill” is like a curse on the two children who are now in their twenties, but living vague, strangely inadequate lives. Isobel lives in Dubai with her competent but non-communicative German husband and her twin boys (who are looked after by a Filipino nanny). Conrad lives in a poky flat above a takeaway bar, lusts unsuccessfully after a series of women he hardly knows and works part time in an organic supermarket.
In France, Pen is bored with her new husband who has an alarming ability to “rank bowls of bouillabaisse Marseillaise by their authenticity” and begins an affair with Bruno, the French handyman. In Dubai, Isobel gets addicted to a virtual life computer game with a farming theme called ‘Acres’. In England, Conrad fails to connect on Facebook with his latest obsession and Jerry continues to commune mainly with YouTube snippets and to regret the losses of his past. When Pen decides the North London house can be sold, this is the trigger for a chain of events including squatters, sledge-hammers and desperate night-flights, that eventually changes all their lives.
Tim Walker is a journalist and this is his first novel. He is very good and funny about the small shameful ways we try to manipulate our image to impress. Being a sort of post-hipster hipster with moustache aspirations, Conrad is especially and paralysingly aware of what is cool and what is not and a lot of the novel’s comedy comes from his endless internal dithering eg he wants to wear a helmet when cycling because he cares about getting brain damage but he doesn’t want to look like he cares about brain damage because that would be uncool.
Reviews of the novel (which have been good, on the whole) have said it is about capitalism, greed, consumerism and, above all, middle-class angst. I agree but I think it’s even more about authenticity. About how authentic pleasures, relationships, passions can’t be bought. Each character is yearning for something real in their life. I loved the way this theme played out in Isobel’s complete absorption in her virtual farm, with her setting the alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to water her virtual crops. I myself was mesmerised by the daily tending her farm required. Similarly with Conrad and his bike: the only time he seems to be genuinely at home in his life is when he is gently, patiently maintaining his lovingly restored bike – his “fixie”.
Bum notes for me were the patronising way Walker portrayed both Bruno (the French handyman with whom Pen has an affair) and the Australian couple who try to befriend Isobel in Dubai. Walker doesn’t seem to make the effort with these three that he makes with his other characters. They didn’t rise much above caricature. Bruno is especially badly drawn (think Quasimodo in the herb garden) and the affair between him and Pen is an unfunny farce.
Highlights: Life in Dubai and in the French countryside are well evoked. Conrad’s worries are hilarious. Pen has some great cynical lines. Isobel’s addiction to the internet game was fascinating.
Lowlights: Bruno and the Australians. Pen’s affair. It would have been good to have more diverse characters – a greater range of occupation, class, race. London felt homogeneous and almost dull here.