Take a ride through suburbia

Jason Cowley finds forgiveness and reconciliation in an English dormitory town

The Prisoner of Meadow Bank

by Miles Gibson

Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 9.99

In a moving address at the memorial service to his friend Russell Harty, Alan Bennett said that Harty "understood that most people were prisoners in their lives and want releasing". Miles Gibson seems to have a similar understanding: for all the characters in his new novel of comic pessimism are, in their differing ways, trapped in the "everydayness" of their own lives, They are prisoners, Gibson says, because they have allowed routine and familiarity to dim their sense of wonder, and destroy their capacity for hope.

One person seeking release is Holly Walker, the self-styled prisoner of Meadow Bank. She is 35, fat, lazy and hopelessly bored, Her life amounts to little more than gossipy coffee mornings, and empty evenings spent gorging on junk food as she watches television. It's a lifestyle with which her husband, Jack, is utterly content. He constantly tells us how happy he is and how much he loves his wife, and we struggle to believe him.

Holly's age is significant because one morning, precisely midway through the journey of her life and quite without warning, she wakes to find herself lost in a "dark wood" - only this wood is a suburban cul-de-sac in an unnamed English dormitory town, Shamed by a sudden realisation of the awful littleness of her daily life, she goes on a crash diet, takes a lover and breaks with her husband Although the affair is not a success, Holly is changed by it. In the end, she gets everything she wants, but one stlll wonders if she were actually happier when inside the prison.

's weakness is that the characters all speak with the unmistakably quirky voice of the author. It's an attractive voice but, like a local dialect, everyone has it. The narrative unfurls in a chain of interconnecting monologues, punctuated by Gibson's omniscient interruptions; yet it's hard sometimes to work out who is speaking, since there is no differentiation in style or tone. Gibson sounds like Holly who sounds like Jack who sounds like his secretary. You can get too much of a good thing.

The novel ends in a flood of forgiveness and reconciliation. The closing moments, as Holly and her aged father dream about future holidays in America, are joyful; yet there is a gloomy sense of impending catastrophe. We sense that the old man won't live to enjoy another holiday, and that his daughter, though relieved to be free from the cloying formality of her old life, is set to face an uncertaln future alone.

As they sit together musing, the old man turns to his daughter and says, "You are normal. That's your tragedy." In a novel full of deceit, delusion and duplicity, this seems the only truthful remark. What stops this normality from becoming a drag is that Gibson, unlike many writers, cleady cares for his characters and is moved by their difficulties. He may be sentimental but he is never mocking. Their small, diminished lives interest him, and he will not condemn them. He delights in their eccentricities, in the waywardness and deficiencies of their speech, its fractured rhythms, repetitions and exaggerations. Sometimes you can hear him laughing with his characters but never at them. It's hard not to be swayed by this authorial generosity, this largeness of heart.

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