REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue 105

He Wants

by Alison Moore

Alison Moore’s second novel, He Wants, arrives with a slew of recommendations for her first, The Lighthouse, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Awards in 2012. One imagines He Wants to be a big important novel, tackling themes like politics or history, the sort of thing to impress prize judges, but which might leave the rest of us cold. Instead, at less than two hundred pages, it is a refreshingly human novel in scale and focus. It is an important book, though, and for an important reason. It goes for, and hits, that best and most elusive of targets – the human heart.

The novel opens with a character called Sydney who has arranged to meet a woman in a café. When he gets there, he discovers that a man he owes money to is due to arrive any minute. He dips into a house opposite to hide, only to discover that the owner has a room to rent. When he shows it Sydney, it is in fact the owner’s son’s room, complete with his bedspread and decorations, which must be retained by any tenant in case he comes back, at which point the tenant would need to move out. This episode opens up a vein of comic writing about bizarre situations which is one of the real strengths of the novel. On another occasion, the novel’s central character, Lewis, goes to the pub for a pint and a sausage, and the landlady spontaneously begins giving him a hair cut in the pub’s front room, his silver locks falling to the carpet as those around him drink their beers and eat their steak and kidney puddings. It’s at moments like this that the novel veers most pleasingly towards the territory of someone like Don DeLillo or The Edible Woman-era Margaret Atwood.

One initial disappointment is that it is Lewis, rather than the more apparently interesting Sydney, who emerges as the protagonist. The choice of someone staid as a central character is always going to be a slight risk dramatically, and Lewis is, apparently, boring. He has worked as an RE teacher for all his life at the school he attended himself, hasn’t travelled much and, in a moment which typifies Moore’s great talent at skewering character with detail, has only ever had one addiction – to Strepsils. Given such ability to illuminate character so quickly, and given the novel’s fascinating opening, it initially seems a bit of a shame that it gets a little bogged down in exposition of Lewis’ character early on.

However, the time spent here reveals itself later in the book to have been spent well. In line with its title, the novel becomes a deeply moving – without ever being sentimental – portrayal of Lewis’ lifelong love of and yearning for Sydney. Despite Lewis’ marriage, his child, the fact that he’s a pensioner and hasn’t spoken to Sydney since he was eighteen, this has never gone away. He Wants becomes a novel for the life, in all of us, that we could have lived. This is echoed, so successfully, through the character of Lawrence, Lewis’ father, who lives in a nursing home. When he was a child, Lawrence was responsible for the death of his cousin in a hunting accident, after which the cousin’s father, Uncle Ted, moved to Australia and never spoke to Lawrence again. Ever since then, Lawrence has written continually to his uncle to apologise and continues to do so, even though there’s no real chance that his uncle is still alive and he has no idea whereabouts he lived and even though if his uncle were to write to him, Lawrence’s own last-known residence has been demolished years ago:

He does not know his Uncle Ted’s address but sends his letters care of the post office. He does not know which city or town his Uncle Ted might be in, so he spreads the letters around. He has sent them to Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth; to Adelaide, Wollongong, Townsville and Cairns; to Darwin, Toowoomba, Ballarat and Bendigo; to Canberra, Orange, Coffs Harbour and Broken Hill; to Albany and Albury and Bunbury; to Shepparton, Whyalla, Mount Isa and Mackay; to Rockhampton, Bundaberg, Port Hedland and Port Lincoln; to Maryborough and Alice Springs; to Tamworth and Wagga Wagga.

It is in writing like this, in its portrayal of impossible and fantastical yearning, that He Wants can be said to achieve something like beauty. True, the novel isn’t perfect. While the ending is left nicely open, for example, it can seem rushed, while an incident in which Lewis is responsible for the blinding of a child in a Chemistry lab accident seems a little out-of-place with the character we have come to know and love. But these are small problems in a witty and very moving novel. He Wants has no focus on politics and the history it explores is purely personal, but with its striking originality and its emotive focus on human beings, it deserves all the plaudits and awards it might get.

Jonathan Edwards was runner up for the Cardiff International Poetry Competition in 2012, won the Terry Hetherington award for young writers in 2010, and is the author of My Family & Other Superheroes, his debut collection, has just been shortlisted for the Costa book award’s poetry category.


previous review: Fauverie
next review: In Reality: Selected Poems


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