Books: Friends in the north
Noah, Noah by Paul Wilson Granta, pounds 15.99, 342pp; Christopher Hawtree applauds a small-town hero
Saturday 04 September 1999
To put it like that suggests that Paul Wilson is a dour spirit. Far from it. There is a humour all his own to these accounts of delicate, resilient spirits at the mercy of small-town sharpsters and officials. His eye for the bizarre never thwarts human sympathy, and in Noah, Noah he has produced his finest work yet - the equal of Graham Swift at his best.
An ingenious construction in which reality and even grimmer fantasy intertwine, it carries the reader along at a clip, all the while making one eager to tease out its subtleties. This novel defies summary but makes for a brilliant panorama of postwar England as seen by former orphan Noah (thus christened, for it was a religious institution where the foundling fetched up).
Noah Brindle has been in charge of a fading community centre on a grim Lancashire estate for a couple of decades. His lunchtimes are spent at a nearby cafe whose forthright female owner duly embraces vegetarianism and gives vent to hopes and dreams matched by Noah's creation of a character called Mr George.
Before the war, Mr George arrived from Scotland by train. He exchanged clothes with a local entrepreneur and, attired in a white dinner-jacket, was greeted by the townsfolk as a mover and shaker. In time, he turned his benefactor's home into a liberally-run refuge for orphans which - after a Dartington approach to matters sexual - falls foul of Church authorities.
There is many a hard-luck story in both strands of the novel. But it is managed with such aplomb that, for all its cunningly delayed reversals, Noah, Noah never loses a certain exhilaration and an eye for plausible outrageousness: "Noah had written to the Council eighteen months ago asking for a grant for the roof to be repaired, having been refused funds by the trustees. Four months later, he got a letter back saying that he could have a basketball court marked out in the yard as part of the Council's Basketball Development Strategy. Noah had taken what he was offered..."
Suspension of disbelief is never punctured, even when one is asked to credit the antics of a tame bear which acts as a football mascot (his reported death stirs the heart). Paul Wilson, who displays far more insight into human nature than his namesake, has one marvelling at the way that - without force - his stories merge. They take in such events as the moon landing, with Aldrin and Armstrong as faintly preposterous bystanders at events of far greater consequence.
Here is that rare thing: a novel certain to be on people's lips right now, and around long after the lesser Paul Wilson has shuffled from the scene to take comfort in such banalities as "massage your eyebrows" and "wear Donald Duck underpants". For the price of those gaudy knickers, Noah, Noah offers so much more.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Al Pacino on suffering from depression: 'It can last and it's terrifying'
- 2 Half of young women unable to ‘locate vagina’ and 65% find it difficult to say the word
- 3 Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb
- 4 A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'
- 5 Mexican woman becomes world’s 'oldest person' at 127
Jessica Chastain demands Scarlett Johansson-fronted Marvel superhero movie
Downton Abbey series 5 start date revealed: ITV drama to return in late September
Nicki Minaj suffers wardrobe malfunction during MTV VMAs performance with Ariana Grande and Jessie J
How to read Will Self: Unlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
New Netflix releases: Films and TV shows coming in September 2014
Rotherham child sex abuse scandal: Labour Home Office to be probed over what Tony Blair's government knew - and when
What do immigrants really think of Britain? Polish immigrant's Reddit post goes viral
Ashya King: Parents of five-year-old boy refused permission to visit him in hospital and denied bail at Spanish court
With Douglas Carswell joining Ukip, my party has taken another giant step forward
When elitism grips the top of British society to this extent, there is only one answer: abolish private schools
Ashya King: 'Cruel NHS has not given us the treatment we need', says father of five-year-old with brain tumour who fled to Spain