Published by Hodder & Stoughton
Home Stretch not quite a home run for Norton
GRAHAM Norton’s third novel has shaken off any hint of the caustic humour that made the writer a household name, and has instead mired itself with heartache, melancholy and the aftermath and consequences of dreadful tragedy. Although it follows in the footsteps of what is often derogatively categorised as popular fiction, this is not a light read.
Indeed, a story that begins with a fatal car accident doesn’t indicate any lightness or levity, regardless of the multiple viewpoints of the varied cast of characters it’s seen through the eyes of.
It’s the late 80s, and the day before a wedding. The mother of one of the bridesmaids is fretting over her choice of outfit, the mother of the groom is fretting over whether her darling young son has made the right choice of bride.
None of it matters, in the end. At high speed, the brush of the kerb of a roundabout is all it takes; the lives of all the occupants of the car, out for a pleasure drive to a scenic beach on a sunny day, are changed in an instant.
The narrative wanders from then, to certain years subsequent, and back, as the story dictates. It centres on members of two of the families involved in the accident, their overlapping interactions as the years go by and the relationships they have, with each other and with the families they subsequently forge.
It hinges on Connor, the school-leaving son of a popular publican who is brought to court with causing the crash. His fate brings him first to Liverpool, then beyond, forcing him to face up to an aspect of his identity that he may not have been able to confront quite as early as he may have done, had he stayed in rural Cork in the 80s.
There are echoes of Colm Toibin in the following story, it being Norton’s most intimately imagined yet. There are significant queer themes explored, which are sometimes edged with a not-unfounded, but nonetheless slightly overly-emotive approach.
It’s hard for me not to compare Home Stretch with Norton’s previous works; Holding, which I loved and A Keeper, which stirred my thoughts far beyond finishing, such was its unexpected story arc.
As they’ve been published, the novels have got darker, more laden with depth and sadness, but if I were a future reader unfamiliar with the order, I think that I would assume that Home Stretch was the debut and Holding the more experienced, sophisticated and rather more original work.
Home Stretch is deeply personal, and it shows. It’s an episodic family drama, unarguably nicely told and plotted, but very earnest in places, and almost defensively conscious of its gay themes and references.
Although main protagonist Connor is a well-developed character that no reader could not have the most sincere sympathy for, the chief villain, revealed far in to the book after deft teasing, is possibly both too wicked and too self-sacrificial to believe.
There are distinct echoes of Maeve Binchy’s more maudlin work in Home Stretch, which isn’t a terrible thing, but it does heavily mine an emotional response which may have been better left drawn out with more subtlety.
Norton’s real strengths lie in astute observations and descriptions of small-town life, and, like in Holding and somewhat in A Keeper, the breaking points of middle-class, middle-age women with not-at-all irrational bees in their bonnets.
There’s a lot to like about Home Stretch, be it the recognisable Irish characters and the twists and turns of the tale that you’d prefer not to believe, for the sake of the characters that you’ve grown to respect and admire. It’s well written and plotted, with keen, experienced observations on the changing views of Irish and world society.
However, some of that sharp-edged but well-timed humour that the writer is known for in his TV personality persona and which shone through in his first book are missing, and perhaps if they had made their way into this book it would have been elevated beyond “popular fiction” and into the realm of great Irish episodic writers like Tobin or Anne Enright.
While not quite a disappointment, Home Stretch could have been better. Judging by the author’s previous output, the best is quite possibly, hopefully, yet to come.