Didsbury, Manchester's premier suburb. My impression of it has always been that it is lovely, leafy and home to the chattering classes. Wander down Wilmslow Road any day of the week and take in the chain bars and coffee shops with Didsbury residents quaffing cappuccinos and nibbling on their goats cheese and sun dried tomato topped ciabatta with roasted pepper and rocket salad. Thanks to Neil Roland and his debut novel "Taken for A Ride" I have been immersed in a very different side to Didsbury I barely knew existed. This is the word of the ever-diminishing Jewish community in Didsbury. The community was founded in the nineteenth century by the Jewish elite who flocked south of Manchesters City Centre to Didsbury to build their massive villas, rather than head to the more crowded working class Jewish districts of Red Bank and Cheetham Hill. They were a group who looked for education and culture, enjoyed concerts at the Halle but also kept their Jewish heritage distinct with a number of delis and synagogues situated in and around Didsbury
Taken for a Ride is set predominantly in present day Didsbury and focuses on three women. Rhona is retired; wheelchair bound and resides at the Sidney Fleiss Memorial Home. Her main pleasure in life is her jaunts in a taxi with her trusted driver Rebwar. Sylvia is one of Rhona's oldest friends. She is affected by rapidly deteriorating tunnel vision and Rhona wants her to come and live with her in Sidney Fleiss. The one problem is the lack of buyers for Sylvia when she is trying to sell her dilapidated Victorian villa Lynton. Despite period houses being sought after in Didsbury the lack of viewings confuses and concerns Sylvia. The third main character in the book is Sylvia's granddaughter (we never get her name or if we did I missed it). She works at an estate agents and notices a disturbing trend in the old houses being converted into bed sits or worse still to be knocked down (even if the houses are in the Didsbury Conservation Area) to build blocks of charmless, faceless flats. Meanwhile Sylvia's granddaughter is infatuated by Blue, a photographer who is fascinated by all things endangered and disappearing including the aforementioned Victorian mansions and villas. The book is about the changing face of Didsbury and the disappearance of a culture and a certain way of life as the older generations die and the younger ones move away from their roots as their Jewish identity is diluted.
The book is quite short at only 216 pages long. The plot is quite gentle. It is certainly not one for people who like fast paced action packed books. However what it lacks in speed it makes up in description and detail. This suits me, as I tend to prefer well crafted, multi faceted characters. I think the character of Blue might be based on the author as he is also a photographer and an artist, (as well as being a writer) who lives in Didsbury. Neil Roland knows the place well and it shows in the book. The places are described so lovingly you really could imagine you were there. I actually took a trip down to Didsbury to double check how much artistic licence he had used. No fears it was almost exactly as it was in the book. The only disappointment was that the delicious sounding old-fashioned teashop Bumbles was no longer there and was just another bistro. I even went into the second hand bookshop to check the old green and orange Penguin paperbacks to see if there were the obligatory "Miss Read", Lynn Reid Banks and HE Bates books in there. I was delighted to find a few copies of "Miss Read" all old and twee. It was observations like these that really made the book. If you are in the area I would recommend a walk round Didsbury Village and the nearby leafy avenues it really enhances the whole reading experience. I enjoyed the book as I felt I knew a little bit more about Judaism than before. I never knew that Jews were not supposed to be cremated and had to check the Jewish section of Southern Cemetery (also mentioned in the book) to see the graves with the stones both horizontal and vertical.
The characters were wonderfully described. They were so nicely rounded. Sylvia and Rhona were lovable warm old ladies that did have their eccentricities but were not mad old bats. I found them quite vulnerable at times. Sylvia's granddaughter was a single girl (hard in a Jewish community where she is expected to meet and marry a nice Jewish boy) but is not an annoying neurotic Bridget Jones type. Even the minor characters such as the care attendants, the other old ladies in the home and the granddaughter's colleagues in the estate agents are nicely fleshed out. This really helped, as I was not wondering who was who like in some novels.
The book is as stated about loss and change. A large percentage of the characters are elderly so inevitably there is tragedy and a couple of funerals. It was a poignant moment reading about an old lady, who had escaped from Germany whilst her sisters ended up in the hands of the Nazis, was cremated like her sisters. Reading about the taboo of cremation with Jewish people made me realise how much this fate was doubly horrific for those who lost their lives in the concentration camps. It could make it a depressing book but no, it did not wallow in the grief of the loss of a special friend, or their way of life and sense of community. Instead it celebrated all that was special about that place and those people.
I liked it as it had a nice gentle humour without being too much. The scenes in the estate agent were very good and gave you a good insight into the little tricks they play to make them look busy even when they are not. I also liked the throw away remark about the Didsbury Jews eating Chinese spare ribs as they pretended they did not know they were pork as it was not stated in the menu!
The one thing that did irritate me was a literary device the author used. The book was in the first person narrative with the three women and Blue speaking. They are actually conscious they are a character in the book and say things like you will know in two pages time he is called Blue" or I will not be run over by a car in chapter 36 if the book lasts that long". This really irked me as it seemed unnecessary and as if the author was trying to be too clever for his own good.
The other downfall with this book is although it is a new book it might be difficult to find. It seems to be by a smaller publisher specialising in Jewish authors and stories. It is on Amazon but costs £8.99, which seems just a tad too expensive for a paperback. I managed to get it new on Amazon Marketplace for about three quarters of that price including posting and packaging.
If you are interested in Manchester or the Jewish community I would really recommend this. Even if you are not, the depth of description and the nice little observations will keep you amused. Go on let Neil Roland take you for a ride round Jewish Didsbury before it is too late.
Rhona Laski's life is squeezed into her en suite room in the Sidney Fleiss Old People's Home in the suburban village of Didsbury, where Machester's cotton barons built their Victoria villas, and where a community like no other laid its roots. Meanwhile, her friend Sylvia's elegant home 'Lynton' must be sold, yet no buyer can be found in this property hot-spot. Sylvia's granddaughter should know why, working as she does for the estate agency selling the house, but her attentions become focused on a photographer with a passion for the endangered and overlooked. The queston is Who is being Taken for a Ride by Whom?