Bungalows and giant bananas

Henry Sutton's first novel is an assured, likeable tale of love and betrayal among the over-70s.
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The Independent Culture
Gorleston by Henry Sutton Sceptre, pounds 9.99

Percy rarely went to Yarmouth. People living in Gorleston rarely did... Gorleston was much quieter, much safer. But it was the noise and danger of Great Yarmouth that Percy wanted now."

The Norfolk seaside town of the title still has beach huts, a pier and a couple of hotels. Owing to an over-enthusiastic decision by the council, it also has, in summer, buses disguised as giant bananas. But no one has been on holiday there for 20 years and, except for a new estate populated by Americans working the North Sea rigs, its population is on the elderly side.

Shy, trusting widower Percy, retired from a career in packaging for Birds Eye, is about to embark on an affair with dangerous, man-eating widow Queenie, the raciest of five Gorleston sisters. She dyes her hair orange, chainsmokes, shouts "Coo-ee!" at people and likes to do stunt- driving tricks in her Metro on Marine Parade, usually at lunchtime so that the more decrepit clientele in the urine-scented dining rooms of the seafront hotels can all see and be shocked by her.

It is of course Queenie who lures Percy into driving his Cavalier through Yarmouth's pedestrian precinct, riding the roller-coaster with her, smoking under the No Smoking sign in the Living Jungle exhibition and, back at her Gorleston bungalow, tumbling into bed. "She started to moan and groan. 'I love you, I love you,' he whispered as the constellations twinkled above 16 Yallop Avenue, Gorleston-on-Sea."

Love among the aged is in danger of becoming a cliched subject, but Henry Sutton manages it well. At 32 he is himself getting on a bit for a first novelist and the benefits of age and experience show. There are hardly any failed stylistic enterprises or sentimental excesses till the end. By making Percy one of a notoriously buttoned-up lower-middle-class type - "he had never undressed in front of his wife and never had sex with anyone else at all" - Sutton is able to treat him, convincingly, like a naive and romantic teenage boy. The affair with Queenie is thus ridiculous, but no more so than certain events that Sutton and his readers can probably recall from their own lives.

Percy becomes fascinated after one first glimpse. He tactically makes friends with Queenie's purple-rinsed sister Toots, brings up Queenie's sacred name in every conversation, discovers her address and drives by her house pointlessly, stakes out shops where he might run into her, and gallantly believes that she is not the callous heartbreaker everybody says she is. All that teenage stuff.

The outcome is unsurprising, as we are left in no doubt that Queenie is the typical "pretty one" of the family, a 70-plus version of the spoilt, ruthless bitch we've all fallen for at some time. This leads to the book's one real problem, apart from the over-heavy irony attending Percy's fond hopes. The end of the affair, being so predictable, does not make a sufficiently strong pay-off, so Sutton has to provide another one.

Percy falls back on the memory of his late wife and their long happy marriage. He then finds out, in an abrupt and contrived twist, that all was not entirely as he believed it to be in that department either. Sutton's sense of humour falters, a false, melodramatic note is struck, and the novel's last line is a clunker.

"He put the car into gear," it says. "He knew he could never go back." As Percy is parked on the clifftop at the time, facing out to sea, we need to know whether he's engaging reverse and planning to leave town or engaging first and planning to go over the top (along with Sutton) for a silly, suicidal finale. We aren't told. The withheld resolution, such a dismal feature of Sixties TV scripts, won't really do any more. But on the whole Gorleston is an assured, likeable piece of work.

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