One of the joys of reading old books is that sometimes you can find a book, pick it up, and read with no idea at all of what is to come.
I knew that Norman Collins’s work had been reissued, by Penguin and by Bloomsbury, but when I checked the library catalogue I found a book that hadn’t found its way back into print. I placed my order, a little hardback edition arrived. There was no synopsis, no introduction, not a hint of what the story might hold.
I found a story of newlyweds, coming to terms with all of the practicalities of being married.
Their finances were stretched, all of the furniture for their suburban home in Boleyn Corner had been brought on hire purchase, and maybe the radiogram in the walnut cabinet was stretching them too far. Gerald had seen how taken with it Alice was, he wanted her to have it. But what Alice really wanted was a baby, even though she knew they couldn’t afford to start a family yet …
Gerard loved Alice, but he was caught by surprise by how different his relationship with her was from his relationship with old girlfriends. One of those girlfriends was still around, living in a flat of her own seeing one of Gerard’s friends. He still enjoyed her company …
And he found it difficult seeing so much of Alice’s father, Mr Biddle. He was a widower and his only daughter was the apple of his eye, he wanted the best for her, he was going to make sure her husband was up to the mark. Mr Biddle would prove his worth when Gerard found that his own father was in poor health and needed practical and financial help; he went out of his way to help a fellow member of the Royal & Ancient Order of Mariners …
Norman Collins spins all of this into an engaging, and very human story.
He draws his characters simply but very well, and his understanding of their relationships is absolutely perfect.
He caught moments when Gerard and Alice were talking at cross purposes, when one did something that was a wonderful surprise to the other, when they united as a couple against the world. A young marriage captured perfectly.
And the story of the Royal & Ancient Order of Mariners was a wonderful contrast: at first it seemed to be just another male society, with some rather silly rituals, but as the story unfolded it revealed itself as a true fellowship.
There were moments of such real emotion, and there was a wonderful honesty to Gerard’s narration.
At times though the characters were overwhelmed by the story; Norman Collins’ writing was strongest when his characters and their relationships had more space to breathe.
I notice that this is one of his shortest books, and I suspect that his writing would be more effective with a bigger cast of characters and more space to work. On the strength of this book, and a good number of positive reports about other books, I definitely intend to find out.