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My mother and I disagree on many matters but there are one or two subjects on which we can find common ground. For example, we both think that BBC news correspondent, and sometime presenter of "Newsnight", Gavin Esler is a rather handsome man. I also know that we will almost always have the same opinion on books we have read. Why then would I deliberately encourage my mother to read a novel that I had found to be truly awful, a wicked misuse of trees and a scandalous waste of the time it took to read it? Quite simply I needed reassurance that "The Great North Road" was as shamefully abysmal as I thought.
The book is set in 1950s Newcastle and this is the only reason I can think of for my local branch of Waterstones' having displayed it so prominently. I like the idea of supporting local authors, and the fact that the book was part of Waterstones ongoing "three for two" offer persuaded me to put this one in the basket.
Fifteen year old working-class girl Sylvia Sharp becomes pregnant and her parents make the necessary arrangements for the baby to be adopted. Hours after Sylvia gives birth to a girl, a "gypsy" woman, from the travelling fair camped on the Town Moor, is admitted and also gives birth to a girl. Greta, the gypsy, overhears what is going to happen to Sylvia's baby and realises that this is not what Sylvia wants. She also has problems of her own; her husband, the father of her baby, is a cruel and violent man and she knows that the baby will be in danger if she returns to the fair. She devises a plan and, when the ward is quiet, the two babies are placed in one cot and the two women disappear in to the night. Before she leaves the hospital, Greta places a small toy beside her baby, believing that when Sylvia has found somewhere to live and a job to earn enough to support herself and her baby she will come back for her daughter; she thinks that while the babies cannot be certainly identified, nobody can permanently adopt them and that saying that her own baby was the one with the toy will mean the babies can be correctly identified later on. Greta wants nothing more than to make sure her daughter does not have to live a life overshadowed by violence but she wants Sylvia to be able to get her daughter back when the time is right.
In spite of the disappearance of their daughter, Sylvia's parents want to plough on with the arrangements for the adoption of the child and so too do the parents of the baby's father, David Linden, a middle-class lad whose parents have high hopes for their academic son. David's grandmother, however, approaches the Sharps and asks if she might be allowed to look after the child herself. The other girl, meanwhile, is fostered by one of the midwives from the hospital, a woman unable to have her own child.
Leaving Newcastle Greta and Sylvia take the train but, part way through the journey, Greta disappears leaving Sylvia with a note telling her to go to Scarborough and find Tony, an Italian ice cream seller who will make sure she is looked after. Greta says she will follow on but only months later does she turn up with Samuel Philips, a Northumbrian vet Greta met in London after abandoning Sylvia. In the intervening months Sylvia' mental health has slowly deteriorated and she is grieving for her 'lost' child. Greta decides it is time for both of them to return to Newcastle and claim their children but when they get there they find one or two surprises. David Linden has a new girlfriend, one who wants to become little Alice's mother, while Janice Kirkstone is determined not to let Greta take back the child she has grown to love so much.
"The Great North Road" is a mind-numbingly long and complicated book. Every time you think there might be a resolution to the story there still appears to be at least another hundred pages to go. There are entire chunks that could have been left out, there are sections that repeat the story, there are wholly unbelievable incidents that are dragged out way longer than necessary. And there are just under seven hundred pages of this sheer nonsense.
The cover blurb describes "The Great North Road" as 'an epic literary voyage through the storied landscapes of northern England, through tragedy and comedy, to the darker reaches of human behaviour'. Comedy? I don't recall any apparently intentional funny parts although I'm inclined to say the publishers must have been having a laugh. An epic literary voyage - journey to the bottom of the sea perhaps because this load of twaddle certainly plumbs the depths.
The characters were a line up of the worst stereotypes I have come across in years. A homosexual concert pianist and his jealous butler (also his lover, how surprising!), a hard-drinking and violent gypsy fairground ride owner, the Geordie pitman who can't articulate his feelings, the middle-class mother who likes to hit the sherry to fill her empty days.....
Then there was the language. I know that people were less politically correct in the 1950s but the attitudes towards the gypsies and the language used to describe them was over the top and was an unnecessary historical detail. It also seemed like the writer was trying too hard to be particularly evocative of Newcastle and the north east and crammed the initial part of the book with irrelevant details about particular shops and local green areas.
The writing style is cringeworthy beyond belief; I can only describe it as Catherine Cookson meets Jackie Collins
"He could heal Sylvia, discover her, lover her, make love to her. The skinny arms which held him could be fattened up. He could personally supervise exercises to strengthen her young body so that when he finally had the right to possess her, she would come to him with pride."
But the biggest crime of all was the ridiculous story. The number of really dramatic events sent the book soaring above the highest peaks of absurdity; people getting stuck on rocks in the North Sea, motorbike accidents, chases around fairground rides. Had Annabel Dore decided that she should include a camel race that goes badly wrong she would have done so without a second thought.
The element of the story that sees Sylvia begin to suffer post-natal depression, followed by bouts of mental ill health typified by hallucinations and voices in her head could have been quite interesting, after all this was not something that was widely recognised in those days. Alas, Annabel Dore proves not to have the skill to really make the most of the opportunity and Sylvia's problems simply become tedious and, at times, rather risible.
"The Great North Road" could have been an interesting and very readable story if Annabel Dore had managed to keep it simple. However, it becomes needlessly complicated and seems to suffer from not just an inability to write well on the part of the author but it also points to some very poor editing. Shouldn't the editor have done better? There are too many characters and too many stages on the way to the conclusion of the story. We could easily do without at least 250 pages and a few less dramatic events and in doing so might be able to salvage something from the basic storyline.
Some might point out that it seems odd that I finished this book in spite of all the terrible things I have said about it. It's quite simple really; the utter awfulness was so compelling that you had to keep reading to find to what depths of "horseshit" (my mother's words) Annabel Dore was prepared to take her debut novel to.
I would like to be able to say something positive about "The Great North Road" but it's not easy. The best I can come up with is the advice to give a copy to someone who needs a good laugh, this novel cannot fail to raise a titter.