Ring Road, by Ian Sansom

A humorous voyage round the phone book
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The Independent Culture

Just as Ian Sansom's first book, The Truth About Babies, was no ordinary manual for new parents, neither does his first foray into fiction have much in common with your average novel. Which is odd when you consider that averageness is, by and large, what Ring Road is about, although the author in his preface (yes, preface; there's an index, too, and footnotes) claims, "There are no themes that I am aware of."

Just as Ian Sansom's first book, The Truth About Babies, was no ordinary manual for new parents, neither does his first foray into fiction have much in common with your average novel. Which is odd when you consider that averageness is, by and large, what Ring Road is about, although the author in his preface (yes, preface; there's an index, too, and footnotes) claims, "There are no themes that I am aware of."

Ring Road is a dissection of small-town life. The town in question "is not meant to be a replica of any particular place", but is full of reminders of other towns recognisable to any reader who has ever lived in one, in England, Scotland, Wales or (as we are invited to assume here) Northern Ireland.

The book opens with the return of a prodigal son, Davey Quinn. It's a promising opening, wringing much comedy from the loss of a windscreen wiper, which leads to the interruption of Davey's journey from the airport in pouring rain. He ends up walking, but forgets his bag, and when he goes back, the taxi has gone.

When Sansom wrote this scene, he would have had no way of knowing that the loss of a windscreen wiper en route to a small town in the province had once been a key detail in a visit to Ireland by a future reviewer of his novel.

Ring Road is packed with similar stories that will strike a chord with readers. Either they will know someone like Colin Rimmer, the frustrated editor of the local paper, or they might have heard of a scam similar to that run by Paul McKee's Uncle Michael: an appeal for second-hand clothing for the poor of Africa, which will be sold to line undeserving pockets.

If the town is a panopticon, the unnamed narrator is in the privileged position of governer. But his role is more benign, reminiscent of the Roger Livesey character in Powell & Pressburger's film A Matter of Life and Death, observing street life by means of a camera obscura.

What the reader gets is an anthology of anecdotes, a compendium of characters. What the reader doesn't get is the compulsion of narrative drive, the tension of an intricate plot. The story, as such, could be scribbled on the back of a beer mat from the Paradise Lost nightclub.

Ring Road is the phone book with jokes. It's Twin Peaks without narrative or surrealism. It's soap opera during a writers' strike. Except that this ignores the controlling intelligence of Ian Sansom. Any criticism you might throw at the book the author has anticipated and craftily undermined in his charmingly faux-naif preface. Much as I enjoyed the book, I rarely felt compelled to carry on reading; which is not to say I wouldn't be surprised to see it do rather well.

The reviewer's novel 'Antwerp' will be published in June by Serpent's Tail

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