Faber & Faber, £20, 733pp. £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Cedilla, By Adam Mars-Jones

To recap, then. Adam Mars-Jones, twice named one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, despite never having produced anything reaching even 200 pages, suddenly published, in 2008, Pilcrow. This was the story of John Cromer, a cheery, inquisitive lad of the 1950s growing up with Still's Disease, an arthritic condition which, mistreated, leaves him physically stilted and bed-bound. It was, at over 500 pages, indisputably a novel; more than that, it was the first part of a trilogy. Not quite a case of three buses coming all at once, but at least we had the schedule.

Pilcrow followed John through his early years in the Cromer family home in Bourne End, Bucks, then out to hospital and a school "for severely disabled but intelligent boys". It finished with him tottering, in the inch-and-a-half steps that his hardened hip and knee joints would allow, towards his goal of mainstream education in a local grammar school. Cedilla, the even more substantial filling of this triple-decker, expands on the theme of freedom, with John learning to drive, travelling to India, and taking up a place to study Modern Languages at Cambridge.

The driving will come as a relief to any readers who were exasperated by Pilcrow's failure to deliver on its opening line: "The spring I learned to drive, the cherry tree in front of our house in Bourne End flowered as never before." John, the meticulous narrator of his own circumscribed world, takes all of one book and nearly a quarter of another to get to that first driving lesson.

This procrastination is not the result of an event-filled life; it is the meagreness of John's life that impels him to analyse every crumb of it that passes him by. This results in some amusing period detail (Howzat, Professor Branestawm, top of the milk) as well as some more-or-less unjustifiable digression, but these extravagances are held in check by John's belief that such things are just threads in the veil of illusion we call the world. Thus his decision, before he heads to Cambridge, to visit the ashram of his guru, Ramana Maharishi, in southern India.

It is in Hinduism that John sees his best chance of release from the frustrations of his existence. He wants to reach out and take life with both hands – even a quick grope will do, as his happiness with the few (homo)sexual encounters that come his way testifies – yet is constrained from doing so. If he could only renounce that which lies outside his grasp, then he could achieve peace. His tragedy is that renunciation remains as ungraspable as life.

You might think an element of renunciation is needed on the reader's part, to deal with this infinite deferral of life. The John Cromer trilogy is shaping up to be an endlessly extended Bildungsroman, in which physical hardship, an over-protective mother and the general social climate conspire to keep the hero from ever achieving maturity.

The happy truth, however, is that reading these books never feels like a chore. Mars-Jones's prose is as springy and sure as John's movements are not. The books' picture of a post-war middle-class family is abundantly comic, but also psychologically astute. Take John's ex-RAF Dad, characterised by him as a "thwarting engine": "if you made any sort of claim on him, he would smack you down. But if you built a wall against him, as Peter [a brother] and I were busy doing, then a helpless fondness would show through the chinks in it."

There is a harsher undertow to the portrait of John's mother. Driven to distraction by the thought of his independence, she starts to buckle under the strain of keeping up appearances. When the newly famous Tom Stoppard moves into the neighbourhood, complete with pet peacocks, she can't even bear to leave the house, for fear of finding herself trapped at the greengrocer's, subjected to "an onslaught of epigrams, paradoxes, philosophical conundrums." "He might pop up round the corner," John surmises, "with an escort of peacocks making that strangled-baby cry, spreading his own great tail of blue-green wisdom wide, until the sunlight sparkled unbearably on all the eyes of his mind."

It is writing of this kind that propels the reader through the book, buoyed up too by the warm current of spirituality absent from its predecessor. Nevertheless, anticipation of the third book carries a certain amount of expectation. Cedilla ends as pessimistically as Pilcrow did positively, with John estranged from his parents and waiting morosely to move into a council flat. If and how John the disappointed adventurer meets John the confident teller of his tale, and how that reflects back over what came before, remains to be seen.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence