Pillow Man by Nick Coleman - book review: Searing emotions burn off pages of compelling debut

This is not just an exercise in cool. It's rare to read such a raw account of the male emotional landscape

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The Independent Culture

William, the 53-year-old protagonist of Nick Coleman's debut novel lives in an "uber trendy" Dalston flat. Every day he strides out of the door in a long trench coat and pointy shoes (the uniform of choice for the resting musician).

But William is an enigma: underneath the coat, he's wearing the crimplene uniform of a well-known Oxford Street department store. Formerly Guillaume, the lead singer of indy band VineHeart (memorably described by one critic as "Wishbone Ash for French hipsters"), he now works as a a Pillow Man in the bed linen department. Just another anonymous, lonely, middle-aged man, he apologises.

What has caused him to retreat so violently from the world? And why is he so drawn to insomniac, Lucy, 38, who arrives in despair to buy a pillow from the store? Over the course of this elegant, slim novella, we discover the terrible "incident" from the past that links them – one that has effectively arrested their psychological development.

Coleman is an ex-music editor (his first book, 2012's The Train in the Night, shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Trust Prize, was a memoir about how music transformed his life, from choir boy child to the Rolling Stones teenage years), so unsurprisingly the novel is shot through with muso anecdotes and banter ("Crash, bang, wallop. Plink").

But thankfully this is not just an exercise in cool. It's rare to read such a raw account of the male emotional landscape. William and Steve (Lucy's previous boyfriend) have clearly made poor choices in life, but there's no doubting the sincerity of their feelings. The yearning to be loved burns off the page (spoiler alert: you may start weeping from page 42). While the fateful incident 20 years ago that binds William and Lucy is written in such spare, agonising detail, I doubt I could read it again (ditto the terrible balloon accident in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love).

Possibly Lucy, the beautiful slacker with a failing portfolio career, is more of a fantasy love object than a flesh-and-blood woman. But the chemistry between her and William (two lonely people with intimacy issues) is touching and hot. Coleman is very good on the unknowability of other people (how far can you afford to trust?).

There are rants about the future of live music in a digital age and some very funny middle-class set-pieces (Lucy's academic parents failing to cope when the rowdy Notting Hill set takes over the quiet streets of their home town of Aldeburgh). But it's the emotional arc of the novel that compels.

I devoured it at one sitting.

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