Honey by Arnold Wesker

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The Independent Culture

Beatie Bryant, a figure from Wesker's play Roots, is chatted up by an elderly man she meets in Shepherd's Market. He leaves her with a memory of courtesy and with an obsessional urge to divide the world into two groups. Beatie is finding herself in a world not quite ready for her self-discovery. She is turned down for jobs, old friends seem to be betraying her. Even her talent for nurturing other people's ideas seems to turn on her.

The man she met is Manfred, who climbs, bee-keeps and broods over the failure of his marriage. His best friend is Barney, an East End Jew whose own marriage has been strangely refreshed by his wife's death, but whose wild and contrary children trouble him. Unobtrusively and in a surprisingly humanist fashion, the author leads us to the understanding that it is a supernatural force that brings the characters together.

"I suppose I have the right to play around with chronology," writes Wesker in an author's note. True, but he does it an awful lot here, and sometimes you are left bewildered. New characters are brought in with a regularity that sometimes hinders the progress of the plot. His prose seems at first endearingly gauche: the book teems with well-meaning but complicated characters who are all, to some degree, susceptible to the pitfalls of over-earnestness; and his style often reflects this. Wesker dulls his dialogue with authorial explanation: so an enraptured boy is referred to as "the enraptured boy", and a courteous young man becomes "the courteous young man", as if Wesker, a master of dialogue, didn't trust his dialogue to give us this information for free. The much-trumpeted "ideas" of some characters are rarely striking enough to warrant the rapt responses of the others.

But somehow all this doesn't much matter. The normally soft contours of his prose often rise into sharp, intuitive peaks. And Wesker is anything but sentimental: darkness is there, with all its squalid self-deceptions. Two boys think that a "beautiful rape" is possible, and proceed to carry one out.

This book is plump - one of his favourite words - with love. Wesker imparts the same tenderness of observation to London as he does to individuals. You're not swept off your feet, but nor are you just tucked up with a hot-water bottle and cocoa.