Country matters of the heart: Louise Dean returns to her roots

Louise Dean’s fearless, frank and darkly comic novels have brought a fresh colour and character to English fiction. Boyd Tonkin meets her on home soil in rural Kent
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The Independent Culture

On the way from the railway station through the sun-stippled lanes of the Kentish Weald to a country pub, Louise Dean's route skirts the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle. Ironies could scarcely come cheaper, or neater. Behind those gates three generations of Nicolsons and Sackville-Wests have with suave eloquence charted the emotional peaks and troughs of a super-articulate dynasty. Adam Nicolson's endearing book about his home and clan even frets about their torrential way with words. In contrast, Dean, a local girl now back on home turf after a dozen years abroad, writes witty and touching fiction about the sort of family where dinner-table badinage runs along these lines: "'Nice looking, innie? June? 'An'some. Like old whassisname, done the singing.' 'Frank Sinatra.' 'No.' 'Frankie Valli?' 'No. Whassisname? Went round on the red bus with the bird from Worzel Gummidge.' 'Cliff Richards?' Thassim!'" .

The interrogation here comes from Ken, the curmudgeonly, monstrous but ever-surprising patriarch – part-Pop Larkin, part-Albert Steptoe, part-King Lear – who drives the action of Dean's fourth novel, The Old Romantic (Fig Tree, £12.99). Like its predecessors, it channels the rough music of everyday life for non-Bloomsbury folk with a tragicomic subtlety, a pin-sharp ear for dialogue and a flair for every nuance of character and class. Beneath the mordant delights of observation lies a sharp awareness of the grander themes – love, selfhood, family, freedom and above all (in The Old Romantic) death – that haunt minds and shape lives in Kentish cottages, and executive-style new-build homes, as much as Kentish castles. Admirers of Beryl Bainbridge still grieving her loss should find solace here.

Dean, whose career as a writer kicked off with Becoming Strangers in 2004, has won awards, reached shortlists and never lacked for critical plaudits. Yet she deserves to be much more widely known. That this break-out has not so far occurred surely stems from the very rootedness that gives her work such tang and edge. She completed her first, unpublished novel while working in a New York ad agency, and showed it to the leading publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "They said it was very, very English, and could I do one less English? So I did one less English - which was dreadful."

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Any quest for a literary equivalent of la France profonde on this side of the Channel would surely settle on Kent, where Canterbury pilgrims, Falstaff, Pickwick and (of course) HE Bates's Larkin mob have contributed to a near-mythic model of Englishness. Bluff and stroppy, sly and sentimental, convivial but ruthless, and beneath all his worldliness aghast at mortality, Ken extends this rich line.

After stints of work and family life in Hong Kong, New York and Provence, Dean returned to her native soil a couple of years ago. About The Old Romantic, she says that "I wanted to write a love song or a hymn to this part of England... to show my feeling for this place and the people." Soon after the homecoming, she walked into a pub and, after two decades, found the same barman still in situ. He asked whether she was divorced (she is, with three children, the eldest now 13). "They all come back when the shit hits the fan," pronounced the oracle at the pumps.

Had much altered? "I found that superficial things had changed. But deep down – especially in terms of what's embedded in people's personalities around here – things were the same." She finds the area "fairly aspirational" but also "fairly innocent. People are very lucky. It's blessed little pocket." Now, "I've never felt quite so well or happy. When I stand outside in the garden I literally feel rooted."

The Old Romantic pivots on a prodigal-son plot. Ken's elder son Nick, a Cambridge-educated divorce lawyer who on his upward path has committed "all sorts of betrayals", makes his peace at length with his death-obsessed dad. Ken, for his part, moves from a comically creepy obsession with the funeral trade – abetted by a smart Hastings undertaker, Audrey – towards a reconciliation with his long-forsaken first wife, Nick's mother: the magnificently eccentric Pearl.

Classes, generations, ways of life and feeling, all collide with disorienting comic thumps. Nick, the ill-at-ease arriviste, comes with anxious beautician Astrid in tow, a partner as disturbed by ageing as Nick is by status and style. "Perhaps you got yourself off TV or out of a book," as his first girlfriend shrewdly surmises.

Ken, now ensconced with second wife June in a shabby Hastings bungalow that coyly hides his prosperity, rails at the modern world. He sets nouveau-posh Nick against loyal younger sibling Dave, chortling at the mess. Yet his nostalgia for the values of a lost past where all were "courteous and decent and hard-done-by and hopeful" leads inexorably back, beyond his mortician-business fetish, to the rock-like Pearl, the potty-mouthed, huge-hearted countrywoman whom time and fashion cannot break as she shows her straying family at last how "to find beauty in dirty places and commonplaces, everywhere".

Dean's writing, as alert to "the frothy palaver of the sea skittering on shingle" as to the "lesser-washed smell" of childhood happiness ("of home, of apples, damp and Mum") does precisely that. But, needless to say, her route to publication proved more roundabout than it would be for a Sackville-West. She grew up an only child ("always the stranger at every table") with parents, grandparents and two aunts "in very close proximity". "I would be sitting on the floor invariably, listening." Family members "all had their own needs and wants, but they couldn't say them." So she learned to read silences. "No one ever told the truth, and that was quite gripping to me."

In the novel, the Victorian former gamekeeper's cottage of her childhood makes an appearance as Pearl's home. After our pub lunch, we visit it, hidden in fairy-tale seclusion down a winding track. We find Dean's mother tending a garden crowded with (for August) intensely bright blooms. I suspect the horticultural connoisseurs who throng Sissinghurst and its pale hues might be slightly alarmed at all this riotously impolite colour and character. Like mother, like daughter?

"I had an absolutely wonderful childhood," she says. Yet "Funnily enough, perhaps that's why I needed to slip its grasp more than someone who had an unhappy one." She attended Cranbrook School, a famous state grammar, and went on to Downing College, Cambridge. Although she loved reading history, "I couldn't believe how either erudite or pretentious – depending on which way you look at it – my peers suddenly were, and how frightening – and quite how cruel at times." After Cambridge, work as a brand manager for Unilever left her "shocked shitless". In Croydon, The Glittering Prizes yielded to The Office. "I was given a rough time because of being considered posh. So I quickly dropped being posh – and actually made my longest-lasting friends."

After Unilever came a move into advertising and a period in Hong Kong, where she went with the future father of her first child, as a "creative planner" for the Bates agency. Her next landings were in the US, first the West Coast ("I thought there was no anxiety there and I would never bother getting out of bed") and then that "little island of Europe", New York. There she worked for another agency and set to writing fiction in earnest. "I'd written a novel in Hong Kong when I was working on a Jack Daniels account – and then I realised that writing was better without Jack Daniels."

In Brooklyn, pregnant with her daughter, she finished Becoming Strangers after her beloved grandparents' death: "It was a way of spending time with them again." The novel's pair of ageing, or elderly couples, on a Caribbean vacation, and its theme of relationships utterly recast by illness, accident and time, hinted at a range of empathy that set the book far apart from the general run of navel-gazing debuts. Yet Dean makes clear that all her people come from within – a lesson she learned from Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He made her realise that all characters "are parts of me, and I just give them life. That's how you do it!"

In their external traits and foibles, they must also indirectly feed on other people. "I tend to pastiche my characters and hedge my bets... I'll take one striking characteristic of one person and give them the physical attributes of another." As The Old Romantic comes – in every sense – closer to home than any previous book, she does worry that some readers might hunt for real individuals in its pages. They will be disappointed. "Hemingway said he would rip off people wholesale if he could get away with it. Maybe he didn't have very many friends, and I'm trying to stay here for a while."

From the off, Dean's crisp and bold language also made its mark. "I used to take Hemingway's medicine before going to sleep and writing the next day because that concentrates the mind wonderfully." Allergic to every stock phrase, she loves to edit. "You know the old Dolly Parton line, 'It takes a lot of money to look this cheap'? With me, it takes a lot of wasted words and paper to look remotely intelligent. I will edit a lot down to a little."

Her fiction also draws its force from judicious investigation and research. This Human Season recreated Belfast at the time of the IRA hunger strikes in the Maze prison. It involved nine months' worth of interviews and, in its parallel tales of an inmate's mother and a prison guard, preceded in its non-sectarian insight Steve McQueen's prize-winning film, Hunger.

Four less than blissful years in Provence underlay The Idea of Love. Again, the novel disrupted the convictions of its linked characters as privileged expats made life-rattling discoveries on trips to Africa. For The Old Romantic, research took her to a destination less remote geographically – but perhaps more so psychologically. The acknowledgements include thanks to funeral directors. "I was throwing away some files recently and I found a letter which said, 'Dear Louise, we hope you enjoyed your embalming experience with us.' It was my dinner-party boast for a few months that I could perform an embalming. It's actually quite simple - a plumber's sort of job."

Plumbing apart, the new novel grapples in its edgily comic way with a pervading terror of death. Dean says she "wanted to 'do' death to vaccinate myself against the incredible fear, which would often keep me awake at night, fretting over it. I wouldn't say it's entirely dispelled that. But I do rather believe now that there is life after death."

Has some experience shown her that? Rather, "an accumulation of experiences", such as "hearing my grandparents from time to time as they say funny things to me. That may just be memory – but in a way memory is a form of life after death."

So does she hold a conventional religious faith? Not really: "I'll go through periods of quite fervent belief and then I'll go through periods of quite fervent atheism." Likewise, remarks a novelist who finds that her "tenderness" for even the "irascible and ugly parts" of her people grows as she goes along, she can swing in politics between passion and apathy. "I can almost see anyone's point of view." That's a superb qualification for a novelist, I suggest. "It's a very bad qualification for a life partner," she answers.

But in The Old Romantic, everyone will in due time find an honoured place and a ringing voice – even the pliant and put-upon Dave. Dean celebrates their differences, and their distinctions, with undivided sympathy. "I was thinking the other day, what are the things I believe in? I don't really know. I could only say that I quite like curry."