Moving by Jenny Eclair, book review: Comedian reveals her dark material

Eclair's fourth novel is a compelling, compassionate and keenly observed evocation of family dynamics, time and place

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Not long ago, I read a book review bemoaning the fact that publishers persist in giving comedians contracts to write books. The expectation is, of course, that the comedians will write something comical that will draw their television and stand-up audience, as well as established readers. The publishers' hunch has often borne fruit: David Walliams has become one of the most successful children's authors of the past decade, a plausible heir to Roald Dahl, while Bridget Christie, David Mitchell and Stewart Lee have all written critically acclaimed memoirs that have delighted readers.

In this, as in so much, Jenny Eclair has been something of a trailblazer. Twenty years ago, she became the first woman to win the UK's top stand-up prize, the Perrier. A decade later, she challenged the invisibility of women over a certain age with appearances in Grumpy Old Women and Loose Women, co-writing the Grumpy Old Women live shows. This is her fourth novel. Its predecessors, Camberwell Beauty, Having A Lovely Time and Life, Death and Vanilla Slices, have been kindly received and commercially successful.

Moving is not a comic novel. It opens in the present day, with the septuagenarian, twice-widowed Edwina resolving that it is time to sell the south London house that has been her home for more than half a century. "The house is telling her to go: her allotted time is up, it's someone else's turn. The place needs a firmer hand than the freckled mitt that clings to the banister rail. Mine, she realises, my little old hand… How strange that she should be the last to go, and for a split-second she can hear them, running up and down the stairs, the tumble and laughter, followed by this silence. Don't cry, she reminds herself."

It is a device that through Edwina's tour of the house we learn fragments of the late occupants of these rooms: of how she bought the house as a newly-wed, already pregnant young art graduate on the cusp of the 1960s; of the beloved twins, Rowena and Charlie, she brought up there; and, later, of the fractious, ultimately tragically ruinous relationship she endured with her stepson, Lucas.

The second part of the novel opens in October 1980, and follows Fern, a Home Counties girl floundering in her first term as a drama student in Manchester. Eclair recalls the 1980s with vivid detail, not just the scuzzy, beer-sodden world of its post-punk, proudly working-class students, but also the gaping social gulf between Fern's Northern housemates and the pro-Thatcher gin and gymkhana circuit from which she has sprung. This is a pre-Aids world that experiments with casual sex and hard drugs. When Fern's worlds collide – with Edwina's glamorous son Charlie as the socially fluid go-between – the bleak tragedy at the heart of this novel unfurls.

In the concluding part, many of the same events are recounted from the perspective of Edwina's much-maligned outsider stepson Lucas, now an overweight 56-year-old still reeling from the fall-out of his parents' break-up a lifetime earlier. Often sombre, only ever darkly comic, Moving is a compelling, compassionate and keenly observed evocation of family dynamics, time and place.