Review: Spanish City By Sarah May Essay, Research Paper
Pier pressure Spanish City Sarah May 289pp, Chatto & Windus For a work that stops short of its 300th page, Sarah May’s second novel takes in a variety of fictional forms. On the one hand it offers a detailed, but consistently oblique, portrait of a certain kind of pre- and post-war provincial life. On the other it supplies a series of intense, but no less oblique, love stories stretching out across time and continents. Then there is its habit of lapsing, almost on the instant, into a symbolist extravaganza of the most elemental kind (literally so, in the case of the storm that blows up halfway through). Immensely subtle adjustments of the emotional thermostat yield to the most flagrant prompt-carding, while a devious but all-enveloping plot winds on so unobtrusively that it could almost be happening off-scene, in some queer environment beyond the printed page. As if to emphasise this permanent air of dislocation, Spanish City opens in 1926, far away from its chief locale, in a boat on the great salt lake of Utah. A roller-coaster designer named Delaval floats on the brine with his child’s teenage nursemaid. The pleasure palace of the title, whose construction Delaval is supervising, looms up alongside. Amid a great deal of fragmentary conversation, a single, prophetic remark stands out. “The sounds we make when we lose consciousness, whether through pleasure or pain, are all the same,” he informs 16-year-old Charlie, as she slaps at the brine flies and stares miserably (”It’s too big”) at the lofty ridges of the Oquirrh mountains. Moving forwards 60 years or so, the novel then settles on its central character. Hal Price is, in this early foregrounding, an elderly teacher living in the imaginary northeastern British coastal resort of Setton. Abducted in an odd, desultory way by two of his former pupils, Price is taken off to a café on the town’s northern edge for a meeting with an unknown fourth party. The “story” that he tells the two boys is his, but also theirs, and in a roundabout way that of Setton itself and even of the wider world beyond. A clever boy from a poor and uncomprehending home (his father is a miner), largely ignored by his parents, packed off to teacher-training college by a dismissive headmaster – all this presented more or less realistically – Price ends up in France at the fag-end of the war. Here, amid the staging of a lavish and faintly surreal regimental production of Dick Whittington , he meets up with the other significant members of the cast: Delaval’s officer son; Perkins, the aspiring entrepreneur with his talismanic copy of How to Become a Millionaire ; a mercurial girl named Stella, whose mysterious and even sinister disappearance sets up the novel’s succeeding acts. Back in Setton in the 1950s, Price teaches at his old school. By degrees, marshalled by these shared incidents in their past, the characters reassemble. A second Spanish City, the brainchild of Delaval junior, rears up to revivify the town. Played out on the floor of the huge ornamental dance hall, in the funeral parlour run by Price’s enigmatic cousin, Raymond, on the windy promenade (a map is helpfully provided), the novel’s compass swings eerily back and forth, tiny hint followed by figurative burn-up. Hal’s return from the war is a good example of May’s ability to mix flaring symbolist set-pieces with teasing dialogue that doesn’t immediately declare its purpose. Hal comes back to find his parents dancing boisterously around their flat, and his arrival trumped by the presence of stick-like Uncle Tom, a gaunt survivor of the far eastern PoW camps. A brief conversation with Daisy from downstairs then quietly sets off several hares – all of Setton anticipates their marriage – that are either not pursued or trailed into unexpected burrows. All this may make Spanish City seem bafflingly understated. And yet the world conjured into view by May’s slanted approach to scene and dialogue is peculiarly charged and vivid. While the climactic scenes are sharply done – Stella arriving by boat in the storm to be plucked from the sea and apparently revived from the dead on Raymond’s couch – much of the novel’s allure lies in its atmospherics: the dreadful, seedy caravan to which Perkins is eventually tracked down; the wartime watchtower in which Hal half-heartedly makes love to Lydia, Dick Whittington ’s make-up artist. In the end the book sinks a little under the weight of explanation demanded by its closing stretch, the sense of hasty last-minute arithmetic being required to produce a convincing final total, but the voice behind it is uncannily distinctive. In its quiet but observant way, Spanish City is just as much a novel about recent English life as many a more deliberate assault on the post-war national consciousness.