FABER & FABER £18.99 (525PP) £17.09 (FREE P&P) FROM 0870 079 8897

Pilcrow, by Adam Mars-Jones

Heaven and hell on wheels for a child of his time

Pilcrow is an archaism, dating from 1440. It denotes a paragraph mark of the kind most commonly encountered in religious texts, such as prayer books and hymnals. John Cromer, the principal character in Adam Mars-Jones's novel, regards it as the 27th letter of the alphabet. Does the boy know that the word is an abbreviation of "pilled" and "crow", suggestive of a black bird bereft of feathers? He probably does, though he neglects to disarm readers with this one example of pedantry.

John appropriates "pilcrow" because language and literature can do without it, as they have for centuries. It is a symbol, perhaps, for his own disability. John is born in autumn 1950, a seemingly healthy baby. A childhood illness is wrongly diagnosed as rheumatic fever, and the doctor recommends bed rest. It transpires that he has Still's disease, a form of rheumatoid arthritis. The limbs he should have exercised are paralysed as a result of this simple medical oversight.

The prospect before John Cromer, from the age of five, is a life of beds and wheelchairs. Pilcrow, the first volume of a trilogy, takes the physically confined but mentally agile narrator to his adolescent years. In the closing pages, he is staking his claim to be an independent spirit. University is beckoning, with the promise of new adventures, scholastic and sexual.

The narrative technique Mars-Jones has employed to convey John's myriad frustrations and occasional triumphs is anecdotal and episodic. John tells stories as they occur to him, to an audience he hopes will be as captive as he is to immediate experience. Many anecdotes are to do with the childish concerns of 50-odd years ago: the radio ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews; the Famous Five books of Enid Blyton; the dulcet tones of Daphne Oxenford on Listen With Mother; the pop and "novelty" songs of the period. There is a surfeit of this dated trivia.

The novel has three main settings: the suburban home in which John is first raised; then the Canadian Red Cross Memorial Hospital in Taplow, where his true education in the malign ways of the world really begins, and finally a progressive grammar school, Vulcan. In this pioneering establishment, the relatively healthy boys, the Able Bodied or ABs, are trained to assist their incapacitated fellow pupils. It is at Vulcan that John at last takes wing. So, it has to be said, does the book. In the dormitory, after lights out, John is the leading performer in a smutty entertainment involving randy cowboys, buxom wenches, astonished virgins and other disreputable characters. John is at his most adept with female voices, delighting his chums with gasps of pleasure and surprised gratification.

John is already a confirmed homosexual, and at Vulcan he finds the opportunities – brilliantly described in humiliating and inventive detail – to give expression to his needs. He is at his happiest attempting to seduce Julian Robinson, the school's master spy (James Bond novels are the preferred reading), though two sessions with the school tart, Luke Squires, a blond beauty of unusual sexual sophistication, are more easily accomplished. Luke is a professional charmer, a Steerforth on wheels, and like every literary school tart before him, he is fated to get the authorial heave-ho.

The portraits of John's parents – Dad with his RAF lingo and Mum with her homely concerns – rarely stray from convention, while his maternal grandmother, a frightful old snob, is sketched with the catty gleefulness one associates with Angus Wilson. We have to take John's word for it where adults are concerned, and his vision is limited. People here tend to be nice or nasty, as in a fairy tale.

It is to Mars-Jones's credit that John is not especially likeable – he is frequently petulant and selfish. The tone is never sentimental, and when I say that the book's tenderest and most moving passages are to do with the progress of a budgerigar named Charlie, abandoned by its mother, I could be accused of contradicting myself. But Charlie is a benign presence as he warms the hardened heart of Sister Heel at Taplow or flies around John's bedroom, pecking at the little boy's face and fingers. Charlie, weaned and nursed by Mrs Cromer, survives with his blue feathers intact.

Paul Bailey's 'Uncle Rudolf' is published by Fourth Estate

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits