Books: Why he lacks the power and the glory

Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan Faber pounds 16.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Some journalists - and Andrew O'Hagan is one - have a rare talent to breathe life into fact as if it was fiction. As with the best novels, you simply have to turn the page.

But it doesn't mean they can write fiction. It's a sad and rather unfair fact that you can be as clever as anything, a great thinker with a real flair for prose-making, and still not be able to make a novel. All the right ingredients are not enough if you haven't got that secret, elusive spark that makes a made-up thing fly off the page.

O'Hagan's first novel is a perfect example of this frustrating fact. It tells of Jamie who grows up in Scotland with a drunken father and a mother who does not protect him enough. The course of his life - the fear, the loneliness, the teacher at school who switches him on to books, the young Catholic priest who can't keep his hands off at confession time - are all familiar enough and sensitively, if predictably, conveyed.

Finally, as a teenager, Jamie escapes his parents to live with his grandparents. Hugh, his "Granda" is a dreamer - a socialist hero, a builder of tower blocks, leader of Scotland's post-war building programme. Hugh becomes his grandson's mentor but at some stage the relationship develops cracks. When the novel opens, Jamie's been living in London for some time and now, hearing that his grandfather is dying, he sets off to visit him and all the bleaker landmarks of his past.

O'Hagan's prose - though occasionally strained and inward- looking - is mostly the real thing. His descriptions are the work of someone who, you feel, could not write a gawky sentence if he tried. The dialogue is noticeably credible and so, for the most part, are his few characters. And there's an intriguingly sophisticated sense of landscape and history that many authors - even old hands - never quite manage.

So what's gone wrong? Well, novels are famously flaky, flukey things and the best ones - those that really, truly engage their readers - have a heart beating inside them, a sense that they made themselves and might even exist without their author. And O'Hagan's, I'm afraid, doesn't. Though it conscientiously avoids all the pitfalls of bad novel writing, it remains a well-composed dead thing. It lies there with the apple stuck in its throat and no nice prince to kiss it awake.

It's always very maddening for novelists who make things up to have critics and readers accuse them of autobiography. But there's no avoiding the fact that, were it done as memoir - and at half the length - O'Hagan's tale of Scottish working class idealism might work. Memoir is allowed to be this bald, this linear. We tend to respect the fact writer who tells it as it is.

But novels need embellishment and O'Hagan's piece reads more like the credibly-wrought backdrop to a decent novel, than the novel itself. Jamie, despite almost constant talk of his feelings, remains surprisingly colourless, featureless, unknown. We have no sense of him beyond his childhood. In fact there's a moment when his girlfriend - fleetingly, tantalisingly referred to - threatens to visit from London and then changes her mind, and your heart sinks. This is a book that could really do with the fresh perspective of an outsider - a little lightness, humour, contrast.

Maybe O'Hagan's biggest fault is that he is trying too hard. That and the fact that (great for essayists but often fatal for novelists) he knows exactly what he wants to say. If he loosened up a bit, allowed his characters to breathe, you feel that it might all come to life: he might be, well, surprised by them.

Novelists don't have to be that clever, don't have to know that much. Sometimes the less they know the better. Too much knowledge, too much cleverness gets in the way. But they do have to take a few risks. There's nothing more exhilarating than the blast of energy that knocks you for six when you read a writer who has allowed himself just for a moment to be a little blinkered, a little ruffled, a little amazed.