Coping after war

Coping after war
What Was Promised
Tobias Hill
2015, pp 372, Rs.399

British newspaper, The Guardian, terms the prolific poet-novelist Britisher, Tobias Hill, as “contemporary literature’s Renaissance Man.” Exactly. I have just read my first Tobias Hill novel — and I now wish to explore his work.

The elegantly drawn cover, the precise poetic prose — the novel is a winner from the start... “Why do things smell more in the cold?” The lingering fog is described as carrying the “vinegary crocus smell of London’s docks and factories.”

It’s 1948, post-war London; the beleaguered citizenry wake up to the sharp smells of late winter, sniff the air for the smell of bombs, memories that will never leave them. The day breaks and London’s fog lifts to reveal “crenellations of chimneypots” and “the indestructible St. Paul’s.” At dusk, “a bomber’s moon is rising.”

In London’s East End, three families struggle to make sense of the city’s torn fabric. Clarence and Bernadette Malcolm have come all the way from Jamaica, hoping to find prosperity through the banana business. Solly Lazarus, the watchmaker, and his wife Dora are childless Polish refugees with an impeccable past and a hope-filled present — like all others, including the Lockharts from Birmingham. Michael Lockhart is ready to do whatever it takes to win — and loyal wife Mary is apprehensive, yet supportive.

Men work from barrows in and around Columbia Road markets; women run their homes in Columbia Buildings, a condemned remnant of the war. There are children too... the Lockhart daughters — feisty Floss (Florence) and the quieter Iris; the Malcolm boy Jem — intelligent, sensitive and bookish. In their bomb-site games they are soon joined by a unique youngster with an unusual name, Pond. An orphaned spillover of the London Blitz, this deceptively small boy’s actions prove haunting and puzzling.

All these finely drawn characters, along with the city itself, lodge themselves in the readers’ consciousness, continue to compel our attention; through the 50s while the big city learnt to dust its shrapnel off; through the boom times of the 60s, up to 1988.

It’s a 40-year saga of resilience and re-invention. Tobias Hill tells a compelling tale in a language that is lyrical and redolent, bringing the city and its times alive. The poet proves an effective novelist too, as plot and structure find perfect alignment with characterisation and description. Often the novel reads like a screenplay, the scenes so apparent: “Only when it is clear that Michael will do nothing does Norman’s smile fade.” Amidst all this grit, there is some quiet humour. A Jamaican lady is portrayed as, “Mrs.Jarrett, who might never die if she has a say in it, with the bloodhound jowls and the face of a Roman senator.”

Polyglot London speaks through its diverse characters; “Man do anything for hunger,” says Jamaican-Londoner Clarence Malcolm. Michael’s questionable cohorts reveal themselves through their speech. Speech and smells define this atmospheric novel with its multiple perspectives.

Michael works hard for his family, feels especially close to a daughter, who ends up feeling alienated from him. A good lady meets an untimely end; and life gets freeze-framed for someone. The quieter, more vulnerable characters have imaginary friends who help them cope with life’s realities. The seemingly sanguine Solly Lazarus is smarter than he appears. And the city itself is an important character, clichéd though the idea seems. There is a structure and form to the tightly woven story, told at 20-year intervals, with the occasional flashback keeping the interlinked threads intact and coherent. But there is a difference in tone between the meditative first section and the later periods when the youngsters have grown up and found their own destinies. In London’s Swinging Sixties, Florence flourishes and even 40-year-old diffident Dora is a surprising revelation.

This is also a book of ideas — hope, loss, rebirth, immigration, aspiration, alienation, acceptance, mistakes, rejection, human frailty, forgiveness and closure. It’s a tightly knit patchwork quilt, albeit with a few loose ends, unanswered questions (as befits a modern novel). The orphaned boy and the motherless girl brought together — isn’t their story too convenient? Still, this is a minor hiccup.

The novel utilises as a tagline Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words: Cities give us collision. Cities thrive on collision — of ideas, generations, races. Collisions, whether intended or not, can cause changes with far-reaching consequences. The novel’s title, too, gets a mention, as a character quotes from the Bible, “And all these though well-attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised.”

In fiction, as in life, people struggle on and keep the faith — but not all get what was promised. But some do get what is due to them. The ultimate loneliness of the shrewd survivor provides a poignant conclusion to this finely wrought novel.

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