Sometimes an outstanding novel deserves to be rescued from its own headline features. Ingeniously comic, bitingly perceptive and endowed with a spaced-out, hyper-real atmosphere all its own, Bill Broady's first full-length work of fiction ranks as the perfect read for the dying days for a long, hot and fractious summer. After all, it unfolds over three steaming months between bank holidays in the London of 1976 - that mythically torrid season when (as its hero duly notes) "music was getting exciting again and every day the sun burned hotter and longer".
But don't expect a schematic period piece. A book that takes place within a stone's throw of the Roundhouse in Camden (and, for two scenes, inside that fabled venue) far outstrips dawn-of-punk nostalgia, or satire. Both ribald and romantic - a tricky chord to play - Eternity is Temporary enjoys the vintage gear but never feels confined by it. Free from cheap hindsight and TV clip-show condescension, this is a novel about dreaming, hoping and waiting for the weather of life to break; about the secret sense shared by young and old that they may stand "just one step away from something remarkable".
Evan and Adrea - he a repentant hippie with a hilariously awful batch of Young Ones-style housemates, she a smart, secretive Billie Holiday disciple with a place at Oxford already secured - take temp jobs as care assistants in a Camden old people's home. Run by (male) Matron Price, a painfully funny study of the thwarted aesthete turned monster of sarcasm, this municipal Gormenghast starts out in their, and the readers', eyes as a grotesque dumping-ground for confused or infirm "twitchers" and "dribblers".
Soon we know better. Yoking comedy to compassion, Broady makes the youngsters' discovery of the humanity of the old match their erotic exploration of each other's bodies, and souls. Like Terry the ex-pub landlord, locked into a Parkinsonian silence but still gazing at the stars he knows by name from his wheelchair on Primrose Hill, the "ressies" display a rich inner life that more than matches their carers'. High on love, sun and music, Adrea concludes: "I understand them and they understand me. But with middle-aged people there's nothing there."
Through a series of glorious set-pieces - the residents' invasion of the local pub, their traumatic visit to the zoo, and the lovers' outings to feral gigs by the likes of Patti Smith and The Stranglers - Broady conjures up a summer when rules and boundaries melt like tarmac in the seething streets. Given his talent for blending rueful graveyard humour with rococo inner-city farce, it would be tempting to describe this book as a Clash-era clash between the Kingsley Amis of Ending Up and the Martin Amis of London Fields. But Broady counts as a true original, a writer who keeps our judgements nicely suspended and our senses keenly primed.
He spins out epiphanies to make them last, like the chorus of "Gloria" that sticks in the groove as Adrea and Evan frantically couple in their attic hideaway. Soon the needle will jump and the song, and the summer, end in brutal anti-climax; as songs, summers and dreams often do.
Broady excels at evoking the sort of musical moment that hovers between time and eternity: in Smith herself, with her "new language of raw need and pain"; in the eerily yearning lieder of Hugo Wolf that "Matron" Price adores; in the liberating finale of Beethoven's Fidelio, or in the "last rags and tatters" of Holiday's ruined voice on Lady in Satin. His novel, too, hits the poised, expectant note that defines these lives, in that summer, and holds it through a bittersweet spell of gently twisted time. A book that finds our ends in our beginnings, and our beginnings in our ends, will not care unduly about the staid middle-aged pleasures of the slick, well-paced plot. Perhaps that's why this year's Man Booker judges felt able to ignore writing that glows with uplifting, not belittling, wit on every page.
At the Roundhouse, Evan loves the "heroic, hopeless" songs of the Flamin' Groovies but detests the machine-tooled riffs of the Ramones. He hankers after a music to make "the universe rock on its axis" rather than a high-speed thrash direct from A to B. Broady feels much the same about his prose, you sense. Here he shows that he can indeed make the earth move - or, at least, mysteriously shake and rumble, like those Roundhouse floors whenever a Tube passed underneath.Reuse content