“I love November. I love the frosty grass that pokes up between the paving slabs, and the smoke that puffs out of your nostrils like dragon’s breath. I love the ready-made ice rink that freezes underneath the broken guttering in the school playground. And I love the salt ‘n’ vinegar heat inside a noisy pub, when everyone outside is walking about under hats and gloves with dripping red noses.”
That opening paragraph captures Glasshopper perfectly. A coastal town in early eighties seen through eyes of a thirteen year-old boy. A thirteen year-old boy who has seen the inside of rather too many pubs, because his mother is an alcoholic.
Jake’s father has left. He’s still around, he still loves his children, and he still loves his wife but he can’t cope with her drinking any more. And Jake’s elder brother has flown the nest, leaving him as the nearest thing to a responsible adult in the household. And he does feel responsible, maybe more responsible than he should, for his mother, and for his younger brother.
Jake manages. He has a Saturday job in the local newsagent, and the owner, Mr Horrocks is clearly concerned about the Jake’s situation and so tactfully offers support. Jake is saving up for a hi-fi. He has school, and lessons in classics which so catch his imagination. The only lessons that do. And he has weekly visits with his father.
It could be depressing, but it isn’t. Because it is so perfectly drawn, every detail and every character. Because Jake is young enough to still have a child’s acceptance and faith.
And because the story of one year in Jake’s life is set against the whole story of his mother’s life. That makes it impossible to cast Mary as a villain. She isn’t easy to like, but she is a very real woman , who hasn’t had the easiest life, who hasn’t made the wisest choices, and has fallen into alcoholism.
I couldn’t understand Mary, but I did believe in her, and I did feel for her. But I felt for her children more.
During a spell of clarity Mary contacted her sister, Rachel. They had been estranged for many years, and their reunion seemed to be a positive step. One woman widowed and one separated, they both had space in their lives to fill. Their children were of similar ages. A new extended family.
That created a positive momentum. Jake’s parents decided to give their relationship another chance. And to take a family holiday.
But it was all too much. Memories had been stirred, old secrets that had been buried for years came back into focus. And something snapped. A prologue had suggested an unhappy ending, but I had been so caught up in the story that I had forgotten, until the inevitable happened.
I was caught up because the people, their relationships, their dialogues were so utterly real.There were no heroes and no villains, just fallible human beings whose emotions really touched me.
Because times and places were so perfectly captured. I can’t think of one single false note.
Because the writing was so good, even managing the transition between two very different narrators, managing stories moving at different speeds and slowly merging quite expertly.
And, most of all, because I cared. Especially about Jake.
glasshopper / noun: 1 a person or thing that shifts position or character without warning. 2 a fleeting translucent object. 3 a person who balances precariously between sobriey and intoxication.