There is a touch of Hilary Mantel about the first section of this beautifully crafted London novel. Just as Mantel is able to take her readers back in time with consummate ease, so too can Tobias Hill. Admittedly Mantel has made a name for herself by travelling back hundreds of  years whilst TH contents himself with a more modest sixty, but both have that ability to produce absolutely convincing historical narratives. Just like Mantel, in TH’s prose not one word feels out of joint. The second and third sections of ‘What Was Promised’ might be considered a touch uneven; either it is good, very good or superb. Rarely if ever does it dip below good. But it is the first section, set in 1948 London, that grips the reader with an intensity and authenticity that leaves one breathless and panting for more. TH could easily have set the entire novel in 1948 without in any way leaving his readers wanting. But the ambition of the novel, set over three time zones, is to be respected, and by journey’s end TH can be more than satisfied with his labours.

 

Ironically, one of my favourite passages is not actually about London but about the rich tapestry of peoples that make up the island history of Jamaica. In so doing perhaps TH is aware of the possibility that Jamaica is a sort of mirror to modern day London, in that successive waves of intermingling, both consensual and coercive, have created something greater than the sum of its parts. In fact, when one makes anything greater than a cursory thought to the matter, every nation and every region is an amalgam of invasions, migrations and inter-weaving of peoples. My own family has recently added a Japanese component to our essentially European family and a damn good thing too. Perhaps the very first Asian addition to the family line in many millennia. All this intermingling can only help us move more quickly to the point where we can all finally transcend such artificial constructs as race, nation and religion. Our tribalism is deeply wired but not, I suspect, the last word in human consciousness. Here is TH on Jamaica’s intermingling:

‘He taught her the history of Jamaica, through the mingling of its peoples. The long-lost Ciboney and Half-remembered Taino. The Spanish and the English, and with them the slaves of Africa, the Congo and Igbo, Ashanti and Fanti. Then the Maroons up in the hills, with Taino and Ashanti blood still running in their veins – like Queen Mother Nanny of the Windward Maroons, who fought the English to the end. And then the Scots, who Cromwell banished halfway across the world; and the Indians and the Chinamen, who bought their freedom through their service; and the droves of Irish, the long-lived Jews, the red-nosed Dutchmen and red-necked Germans; and the small islanders, sailing from pitiful places no bigger shore to shore than Camden Town, some of them; but all of them, in turn, finding good harbour under the blue mountains and green hills of Jamaica.’ P257

Such beautiful prose, so confident and with such global perspective. I could read this passage all day, every day without tiring. And like all good literature, never with a hint of lecturing or hectoring. How I wish I could write such prose.

Tobias Hill, like all great novelists, is able to transcend the immediate and offer his readers something of the universal. The following passage would not be out of place in a text from Frederick Engels or Karl Marx, and grim as it is, I suspect it is not a million miles away from our current predicament. Through one of his leading protagonists, TH offers a brutal reading of the human condition. I still chose to believe we are capable of better things, although any quick scan of the news headlines on any particular day would surely indicate otherwise. TH, in his penultimate chapter has this bleak scenario to offer to his readers;

‘There was a show Michael saw once: Mary would have had it on. When it got started no one had time for anything much more than food. Killing it, eating it, keeping it from decay. Then some bright spark got farming going and bingo, there was time to spare. Not much, though; not enough to go round to just anyone. Time to think, like this, to stare back into the mirror – that was the privilege, the greatest luxury. The kings had it, and the priests. The rest went on as before. Their work was the stuffing of mouths, their own and those they served. And that’s still it. That’s all there is to it, that’s all they’re ever doing, people – it’s all we really want. Give us all the time in the world, we won’t know how to spend it. It scares us, we hate it, time, it bores us, so what do we do? We stuff ourselves and one another. We get our heads back down, chop chop, the way it used to be, like animals, like blind things, stuffing, licking, blow-jobbing, troughing….’ P349

Yes it’s bleak and yes it’s brutal but a good, long hard look around and it is easy to come up with something comparable if not worse. I doubt Tobias Hill is himself totally of this mind-set but he is willing to acknowledge that  this might at least be one end of the human spectrum. ‘What was Promised’ offers a much wider view of human behaviour and despite its gloomy conclusion I somehow found the story quite uplifting, in a gloomy sort of way. Something about the relentlessness of the human spirit seemed to shine through the London gloom. In any event, I’ll definitely be back for more offerings from Mr  Tobias Hill

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

 

End JPK Copyright 19/7/14

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 20 July 2014 08:25 )