Books: Knowing your place

Valentine Cunningham finds the best sort of Victorian values alive and well, and flourishing on a Norwich council estate

Trespass

by D J Taylor

Duckworth, pounds 15.99

The critic DJ Taylor produces lovely angry-young-fogy diatribes about modern British fiction: our shallowness, our limping shortage of such Victorian values as moral seriousness, toughly engaged social concerns and characters whose life-trajectories you can believe in. The novelist D J Taylor tries to live up to this untruckling programme with attractive vim. , his fourth novel, is his best go so far at playing trad while never once serving up the fictional equivalent of mouldy fig.

grips and engrosses very nicely indeed as it foxily coaxes two rakish progresses, an uncle's and a nephew's, into the light. These are deftly interlocked stories, of course, for we are happily settled into the Dickens and Bennett-Wells territory that Taylor and his people (old novel readers all) so openly admire.

George Chell - a fatherless boy from Norwich, holed up now in a bleak Suffolk hotel on the run from distressed investors - tells us of growing up on a rather dire council estate and in sink schools. George resists mother and other proley enemies of promise, gets out, and turns into a dodgy accountant in London. He falls into marriage in the gruesomely mealy- mouthed lower-middle class, and gets out of that as well by throwing his lot in with the spivvy but glam tycoon, and father-substitute, Uncle Ted.

The rise and fall of Ted's Chell Holdings, a City ramp of Maxwellian dimensions - though with even stronger touches of the great Victorian swindles featured by Dickens and Trollope - is what brings the freelance journalist Frances Eccles to Suffolk in the hope of ghosting Chell's stories into a confessional bestseller.

There's much in all this brisk plotting of fortunes made and lost that puts at the forefront of modern growing-up novels. For a start, Taylor's sense of place is so sharp: the West Earlham estate in the sullen social margins of Norwich; the locales of his accountancy apprenticeship in Dickens's London, around Doughty Street and Chancery Lane; and the windy Britten-esque flatlands where he has finally fetched up and is retelling his life.

Even more, though, Taylor brilliantly keeps up an assertive sense of how your place of birth places you for life, even in contemporary Britain. George and his uncle can escape from West Earlham, with its aproned sororities of sneerers against cleverness and its know-nothing, know-all patriarchs. They can become "great people", colossally rich, huge in the City, glad- handed by ministers, welcomed to the champers and strawberries of the landed toffocracy. But they still can't persuade the likes of Ekwall (George's queer, boozy gent of a mentor, with roots deep in old City cash) or Helena (George's short-term aristo girlfriend), or even George's in-laws from the prim suburbs, that they're not forever trespassing.

Get back to where you once belonged, is the general cry. The system is rife with social gamekeepers sternly patrolling their enclaves and enclosures. D H Lawrence, wryly expert on gamekeepers and social trespass, would have recognised in Taylor a fellow adept. He would also have approved the indignation of Taylor's class consciousness.

Not that the vexed social mappings of are ever glum: far from it. Uncle Ted is a loud rogue as loveable as any in H G Wells or V S Pritchett. The novel is a picaresque, with much comedy thrown in. It goes in for panto and farce in scenes such as the arrival of the Eastern Evening News at West Earlham's newsagent - mothers with prams lurking meaningfully by the bakers; collarless old men shuffling eagerly forward, sixpences flying.

Of course, the murks and blurs surrounding George's birth - fogs made all the denser by the closed-off privities of council-estate life, and his mother's devotion to putting up a respectable front and keeping your secrets to yourself - are cleared up with all the protracted cunning of a Victorian serial. Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em wait, as Wilkie Collins put it.

True, as in every Victorian classic, you can see the identity of George's father coming from quite a long way off. But that's only par for the course - in a tribute to traditional ways from a novel that works through its programmatic tendencies to become as satisfying a read as anything around.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Sport
David Moyes gets soaked
sport Moyes becomes latest manager to take part in the ALS challenge
Voices
A meteor streaks across the sky during the Perseid Meteor Shower at a wind farm near Bogdanci, south of Skopje, Macedonia, in the early hours of 13 August
voicesHagel and Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise, says Robert Fisk
News
peopleEnglishman managed quintessential Hollywood restaurant Chasen's
Life and Style
food + drinkHarrods launches gourmet food qualification for staff
Arts and Entertainment
Michael Flatley prepares to bid farewell to the West End stage
danceMichael Flatley hits West End for last time alongside Team GB World champion Alice Upcott
Life and Style
Horst P Horst mid-fashion shoot in New York, 1949
fashionFar-reaching retrospective to celebrate Horst P Horst's six decades of creativity
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
i100
Life and Style
Black Ivory Coffee is made using beans plucked from elephants' waste after ingested by the animals
food + drinkFirm says it has created the "rarest" coffee in the world
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T plays live in 2007 before going on hiatus from 2010
arts + entsSinger-songwriter will perform on the Festival Republic Stage
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Developer (TSQL, SSRS, SSAS) Fund Manager - London

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer (TSQL, S...

    Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, Angular.JS)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, Jasmine, An...

    Front-End UI/UX Developer (HTML5, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, Ang

    £45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End UI/U...

    C#.NET Server Side Developer (C#, XML, WCF, Unit Testing,SQL)

    £30000 - £40000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C#.NET ...

    Day In a Page

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition