The Sunshine Cruise Company, by John Niven - Book review: Growing old disgracefully

William Heinemann - £14.99

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The Independent Culture

Fans of John Niven (Kill Your Friends, Straight White Male) might be somewhat taken aback by the opening of his latest novel. Far from the bombastic thrills we’ve come to expect, this story begins in a kitchen, in Dorset, a late middle-aged couple bickering about money. The focus shifts to a care home, where a lonely woman comforts a weeping man, both staring into an abyss of old age.

Then we’re introduced to a two-foot dildo called “The Rectifier” and suddenly, we’re back in the author’s home territory.

Susan Frobisher and Julie Wickham are facing 60, and life didn’t turn out as they’d planned. For Julie, it was a string of unsuccessful relationships, for Susan, the discovery of her beloved Barry’s long-term porn addiction. Now facing financial ruin, they decide to rob a bank.

From a gentle beginning, the narrative rapidly gains momentum as the robbers find themselves being chased by Detective Sergeant Boscombe, a flatulent cop who seems propelled across the page by the sheer force of his emissions. One minute our heroines are discussing the car parking outside Debenhams, the next, they’re drinking champagne on a moonlit yacht, trying to evade both the law and their former lives.

Sensitive souls may balk at the exuberant swearing, the many, many references to erect male members, and the lashings of excrement. For Niven’s admirers though, it will all be part of the fun; and the fun is considerable. Take the moment the aforementioned dildo is being inserted into Barry Frobisher’s rear end, “like trying to force a truncheon into a closed sea anemone”.

Niven elevates puerile humour to an art form, but there are subtler laughs, too. The would-be bank robbers plan their heist on a flip chart, “that Susan had bought that very morning at the big Staples up near the bypass”. And as they accelerate away from the scene of the crime, the timid driver of the getaway car refuses to exceed the 20mph speed restriction, screaming: “IT’S A LIMIT – NOT A TARGET!”

The relationship between Susan and Julie feels a little thin at first, until a revelation in the final third allows Niven to tug the heartstrings to breaking point. And if none of the characters quite achieves the tortured greatness of Straight White Male’s Kennedy Marr, well, The Sunshine Cruise Company is less of a meditation and more of a caper. And it may well be the funniest thing you’ll read this year.

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