BOOKS: Fiction: Perversity in the attic

THE PECULIAR MEMORIES OF THOMAS PENMAN by Bruce Robinson Bloomsbury pounds 14.99
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The Independent Culture
THERE SHOULD be a law against this being called a debut novel. It's far too clever, too assured and too damned good to be a first attempt. Then again, the author did win an Oscar nomination with his script for The Killing Fields, and wrote and directed Withnail & I.

Some people find it difficult to change genres but Robinson makes it look easy, partly because he never gives the impression, as many do, that this novel is his attempt to make Art with a capital A. Nearly all his grammatical pretensions were written out years ago, or lost in the furnace of writing dialogue to tight deadlines.

When, on the first page, he says a certain smell hangs around the house "like oil-vapour in a garage" nobody will mistake him for Joyce, but the image works. And it is not accidental or frivolous: the enormous pot of meat stewing in the Aga every day is a silent sign that something is very wrong with the house in which Thomas Penman lives, although its significance does not emerge until later. Until then it just sits there, stewing.

Robinson's best work is testament to that hoary old rule that you should stick to writing about what you know. Withnail was an exaggerated account of his struggles as a young actor in the Sixties, and this novel bears the same relation to the truth of his home life in the seaside towns of Kent just after the war. When we first meet Thomas Penman he is emerging into adolescence from the last constriction of a troubled childhood, namely the frightening tendency to defecate at the worst times in the worst places. The odorous results, hidden in dark corners, are a further clue to the brutality of Penman family life, in which a husband and wife wage silent war and an increasingly senile old man nurtures perversity in the attic. Thomas loves his grandfather and even after death the old man helps him understand the mad, passionate world of adulthood.

There are dazzling passages, usually involving Thomas's frustrated and violent father. His work as a newspaper wholesaler, splitting bundles with his gang as they arrive on the train at daybreak is described with a lean power. Across the yard lives a mad clairvoyant, surrounded by pigeon filth because of her insistence on leaving mouldy mountains of bread out for the birds, in the belief that one of them is her reincarnated husband. The confrontation between the father and the clairvoyant is set up and executed by a storyteller who knows exactly what he's doing, and how to stay out of the line of vision while he does it.

For a supposed black comedy, the book offers few belly laughs, but it is sometimes profoundly moving, as in the moment when the grandfather's fragmented mind slips back to wartime France and first love in a time of chaos. Don't be put off by the sluggish start, because the tale is concluded with pace and imagination. There are awkward passages, but their memory is chased away by the overall enchantment woven by this peculiar story.

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