Honey, by Arnold Wesker

Sweet and sour source

At 73, Wesker has long outgrown the Angry Young Man label slung around his neck when he arrived on the theatre scene in the late 1950s. Yet his novel harks back to those early days. Honey takes up the story of Beatie Bryant, the heroine of his 1959 play Roots, a Norfolk lass who ends the play abandoned by her London boyfriend, but determined to find her own voice.

In Honey, or "what Beatie did next", Wesker gives his heroine a good education, a great job - after a couple of gruesome interviews - and some uncommon adventures. She teams up with Tamara, a mate from university, and becomes amorously involved with Manfred, the aged but vigorous friend of Tamara's father, Barney. Oddly enough, instead of recreating the early Sixties, Wesker throws Beatie forward in time by a quarter of a century. The social context of the novel is an odd mix of 1950s sensibility with 1980s and 1990s social observation. This blend does the novel's credibility no favours.

In fact, Beatie emerges as a postmodern heroine, pulled this way and that by the demands of her creator, and losing much of her individual personality on the way. In one grotesque episode, she is abducted and abused - an experience that Wesker asks us to believe she might actually have enjoyed. You don't have to be a hard-line feminist to doubt it.

Equally irritating is Wesker's tendency, which affects many first-time novelists of whatever vintage, to use the debut as a commonplace book. They throw everything they know into it. So instead of following one plot line, Wesker restlessly dashes off at tangent after tangent, with his puzzled readers tagging along behind. There's plenty in Honey about bee-keeping, Jewish culture, politics and music, plus a selection of Wesker's favourite quotations, and the plot doesn't really kick in until about halfway through the 430 pages. Even then, the drama of the story is constantly being tripped up by Wesker's insatiable curiosity about life - which he insists on sharing with us, usually to the detriment of readability.

In the end, we see less of Beatie than of her creator. So if you loved the prolixity and expansiveness of Wesker's 1994 autobiography, As Much as I Dare, this is the book for you. If you didn't, you may not wish to be stuck with Honey.

Aleks Sierz is author of 'In-Yer-Face Theatre: British drama today' (Faber)

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