‘Left of the bang: a military term for the build-up to an explosion. On a left-right time line, preparation and prevention are left of the bang; right of the bang refers to the aftermath.’
In her highly accomplished first novel, Claire Lowdon tells the story of a quartet of twenty-something Londoners trying to work their way through disastrous sex, brittle relationships, and a realization of their own failings. There is Tamsin, the musician realizing that she will never be great and who is still deeply scarred by the fact that she saw her father kissing another woman when she was a little girl. Tamsin is in a relationship with Callum, a kind, multi-talented history teacher from Glasgow who suffers from various sexual problems, which darken and escalate as the novel progresses. Callum lives with Leah, a beautiful and aloof young woman with an eating disorder, painful eczema, mania for minimalism and sexual problems of her own. And finally Chris, the bantering army officer who strives to be chivalrous and heroic, and whose aborted romantic encounter with Tamsin when they were teenagers has since led him to fixate on her as a a vision of purity, beauty and perfect womanhood.
This is a very difficult novel to pin down – it is satirical, incredibly funny, dark, honest and in places very sad; many things at once without obviously sitting in a genre. The characters themselves are a carefully-balanced blend of what you might expect from their age and environment – they are so recognizable to anyone of my generation who has spent time in London, yet at the same time almost hyper-real, exaggerated just enough to be alienating and therefore ripe for teasing. It’s a tricky balance to strike, and Claire Lowdon does it with ease.
First, the comedy. I am the same age as the author and spent most of my twenties in London, so found myself chuckling frequently in recognition (and, yes, some shame) at her skewering of a twenty-five year old’s attempts at sophistication. I’m sure that I, like so many of my contemporaries, have described Gordon’s wine bar to friends as “a real gem of a place”, as though initiating someone into a well-kept secret. I’ve spent nights in the seedy armpit of Inferno’s night-club in Clapham, and have been to parties where people have told me about their start-up company which supposedly ‘un-clutters peoples’ lives and helps them achieve minimalism’. I know for sure that I was guilty of rattling on about it when the first intake of university students who were born in the nineties appeared, as well as the fact that I once owned a pager in the dark ages before mobiles. Lowdon handles this brilliantly, though – not with an eye-rolling “weren’t we crass” sort of satire – she simply puts the words in the mouth of her characters, and lets you take from them what you will. For me, as I say, it was a delighted recognition, but the humour is by no means restricted to in-jokes for former Londoners (precisely the sort of thing which would have been sent up here). It really comes from her very astute observations – anyone who has ever been twenty-something and trying to turn themselves into a functioning, socially acceptable adult will find plenty to enjoy in that respect.
Those powers of observation, incidentally, are also used to wonderful lyrical effect here. I loved the image of a “histrionic tableau” of tulips and, on the opening page, a “bleeding toenail, open like a birthday card.” The narrative voice is almost a character of its own here – commenting, qualifying behaviour or offering insights, imbuing the story with shrewd intelligence and style. It is so assured, and full of poise – the author’s credentials as a reviewer and editor are writ large in her own novel.
And then the creeping sense of doom as the novel progresses. The characters are likeable enough to be engaging, but I don’t think the intention is that the reader will champion them. They are often vain, selfish and self-serving – in the way we would probably all be, to an extent, if our internal monologues were unveiled to an audience – but it is taken a step further, and at points each of them does something repellent. And that, I think, is one of the most powerful things about this novel. Armies of us career about cities in our early twenties, drinking too much, behaving irresponsibly, perhaps realizing that our fledgling careers are not what we thought they would be. There might have been moments when you woke up on a Sunday morning on a friend’s sofa, having lost your keys; and although you felt terrible, you were sure that you’d dodged a bullet. Perhaps the catastrophe hadn’t been entirely averted – maybe you behaved very badly, or argued with a boyfriend – but with the immortality of youth and the help of bread and ibuprofen, you were sure that no lasting damage has been done; you’d grow up eventually. In Left of the Bang, however, actions have consequences and the characters aren’t given a grace period – whatever your age some mistakes are life-altering, and the choices we make really do ripple through the years. It’s a sobering thought, and a timely one, given that we can sanitize so much of our public persona via social media now. Act as PR gurus for our own lives, as I once heard someone put it. Some things, unfortunately, can’t be fixed by untagging a photo, and being young doesn’t absolve you from your sins.
I don’t generally read anything which is so recognizably about my own time (or at least my recent past) – but I yomped through this over the weekend. It is a fascinating, sometimes difficult, and finely wrought portrait of the children of the 1980s. What a debut.