Chris Paling’s last novel, A Town by the Sea, was narrated by a mysterious, unnamed man who found himself, for reasons that remained elusive, in a “town by the sea”, which also remained nameless. The novel was an odd creation, containing a series of seemingly unconnected episodes that were akin to nightmare. In one scene the protagonist climbed a tower. Each floor he went up had a trapdoor in the ceiling; each time he went through one, it closed uncompromisingly behind him. But just as the reader began to feel frustrated, a deeper pattern appeared. Paling was using absurdity and inconsequentiality to highlight human suffering, and the book could be seen as a satisfying whole.

Cover of Minding by Chris PalingIn this, Paling’s eighth novel, rather than externalising the vagaries of the human brain, he keeps firmly to the inside of the minds of his players. There is also, as in A Town by the Sea, a hazy sense of place. People drift, mope and ache in cigarette-stained bedsits, croaking their woes away with a bottle of cheap wine and the races; we could be anywhere, any provincial, heartbroken town or inner-city street.

Jane Hackett is the damaged, beautiful heroine. An unobtrusive name for a far from unobtrusive person. Her parents appear in the beginning only as ogres who threw her out to pursue their own pleasures. Her father, known as “Hackett”, seems to have abused her, though this is not a theme that is developed – and thankfully so, as one can become a little bored with the “I blame my parents” syndrome. Jane, after a childhood in care, has an affair with a married man – a composer and piano tuner whose cloistered, affluent life is completely alien to her. She bears his child, Billy, who is taken away from her and put to live with some horrifically bourgeois foster parents. Jane spends her life loping in and out of asylums, her boy the only thing that keeps her happy. Jane and Billy’s search for each other forms the backbone of this tale, whilst in the background lurks the strange death of the piano tuner.

With these ingredients, Paling could have created something clichéd and dull; instead he has made something that is moving, compelling and original. His prose is bare and ornament-free, achieving a flowing rhythm that draws the reader in completely. Plot details unfold smoothly and surprisingly. Most of the action is seen through Jane’s eyes, and this is the reason the novel succeeds. Despite the difficulties inherent in making a “mad” person likeable, her voice is entirely sympathetic, even when it is deciding upon extremes of behaviour. When she breaks a boiler in order to lure a plumber with whom she has a fling, it is her we feel for, not the plumber. She succeeds in destroying everything that she comes across because she is unable to decide what the right course of action is – but we do not hate her for it, feeling only a mounting sense of pity. She knows that she must conform to some societal norms, but in attempting to conform, in the process of telling herself how to do things, she fails and does something wrong.

The cast of broken people that lurch around Jane’s life are the weakest thing about the book: the “Sugar Plum Fairy”, her comrade in the asylum, is a textbook “crazy” person (or perhaps that should be “krazy” with a k) sporting scarred wrists and outlandish clothing. When Jane, in her search for Billy, goes to the Fairy’s house to get her help, we find the latter engaged in making nettle soup: “I thought it might save me some money only I got all stung when I went out picking it and I had to wash it thoroughly to get all the dog-piss off it. Dogs can’t get stung on their winkies I suppose.” There is something slightly forced about her.

Billy is a much better creation: a wise, solid, sensible child, with an inner strength that means he does not feel he has to impose himself upon the world: “He is eleven years old but already he is beginning to wonder if he feels the same as the other children he knows.” With Billy, Paling shows his talent at indicating character with very slight touches:

“Have you got the dog up there?”
“No,” he lies.
“Have you washed your hands?”
“Yes,” he lies.

He interacts, barely, with his foster parents in a dreamy, detached way that covers up the terrible anxieties that haunt him. He keeps a chocolate bar which was the last thing his mother gave him, breaking off one piece at a time. Eventually he finishes it, and finds that Jane has written an address on the inside of the chocolate-wrapper. Billy breaks out of the foster-house, and runs off to find her.

Altogether, this is a fine novel, which, like A Town by the Sea, achieves a mysterious, absorbing sense of wholeness. ■

Minding is published by Portobello Books