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Crossing the Lines by Melvyn Bragg

Crossing the Lines is the third in Melvyn Bragg's series of semi-autobiographical novels about his Cumbrian roots. Plunging us straight back into the existential stew in which A Son of War left its hero, Joe Richardson, it opens with the dreamy boy struggling with feelings of unreality as he gazes transfixed at his own reflection in a shop window. As the book progresses, Joe will get the better of his nameless fears, and the terrifying intimations of non-existence will be transmuted into feelings of mystical oneness with nature: "all things committed and flowing through him and through everyone ... as if he simply ceased to be but was part of all around him, the sky within his reach, air, earth, stones, trees".

Joe's progress takes him from fear to hard-won confidence, from the status of Wigton schoolboy to that of Oxford undergraduate. Covering the years 1955 to 1959, the novel deals with loss of innocence, first love and first heartbreak, and, crucially, the bitter-sweet process of leaving home.

It is also, as anyone familiar with the earlier books will know, about the progress of Joe's parents, Sam and Ellen. Now firmly settled as landlords of the Blackamoor pub, they cross the line into middle age as their son is crossing the class divide; and there are other crossings too, old taboos to be broken down in that pregnant time after the war. Immediately prior to the Sixties, the generation gap is beginning to stretch.

The trouble with a series like this is what to do about new readers. In the first part of the book there is a great deal of exposition. I think this is a mistake, because if ever a saga was meant to be read in sequence, this is; more knowledge could safely have been assumed on the reader's part.

For this reason the first half has a less focused feel than the second, by which time all the important subordinate characters have been re-established and we have gladly caught up with the likes of gypsy-faced Sadie, bad boy Speed, fly-boy Colin and bold Lizzie, the girl from Joe's childhood slum. Perhaps because of the sheer level of enthusiasm, this book is less crafted than the first two. There is a sense of urgency, of trying to rapidly pin down teeming memories as if preserving a rare species.

Sometimes Bragg is in such a hurry he just bangs down his jottings, as in this description of one of Joe's teachers: "Yorkshireman, hardly moved his lips but a strong voice, black hair plastered flat on his head, long pale face, supposed to have been in military intelligence in the war, Eastern Europe, mentioned it now and then, last day of term just the brief lifting of a curtain, mad on cricket."

In its second half, the book flows along far more freely, carrying us easily to the quietly moving conclusion. What comes through as strongly as ever is Bragg's deep affection for his characters and an unfailing honesty; what is developed is the sense of co-existence between mundane life and the life of the mind.

This is as much about Joe's love affair with learning and ideas as it is about his love for farmer's daughter Rachel. At Oxford, he's like a kid in a sweetshop in spite of the painful homesickness he feels, coming to the realisation that there is "another world in which ideas about life and how it should be lived were central to any life worth living".

The prose overall is more ornate, although Bragg is still at his best when writing simply and understating. The scenes that pack the most emotional punch are those in which the substance lies between the lines. Certain quick little exchanges between Sam and Ellen, ordinary stuff shot through with the intensity of recall and absolute familiarity: that's where the true power of the book lies.

Carol Birch's new novel is 'Turn Again Home' (Virago)

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