REVIEW by Éadaoín Lynch

NWR Issue 106

British Story: A Romance

by Michael Nath

British Story, the second published novel from James Tait Black Memorial Prize shortlisted author Michael Nath, is a novel consumed with the questions it espouses in its very title: What is a British story? Who is involved? How is it a romance? In conversation with Seki Lynch this summer, Nath maintains that his romance signifies ‘the old sense of meaning a story that deals with fantastic or improbable things, a tale of enchantment, questing, shape-shifting.’

The quest undertaken by the protagonist, Ian Kennedy, is to prove his fundamental belief that literary characters exist as much as real people do. Unfortunately, his theories are laughable to his contemporaries. His unshaken faith in this idea is represented by his search to prove that Sir John Falstaff, the rowdy bachelor of Shakespeare’s plays, is a real person. Kennedy’s relationship with his wife begins to sour as his professional life becomes an increasingly uncomfortable cause of embarrassment and frustration – until everything is changed by his meeting with Arthur Mountain, an eccentric Welshman who intrigues Kennedy and leads him down a primrose path. The novel’s engagement with the intricacies of character and how it relates to historical, or literary, context displays Nath’s dexterity in writing, as the book itself moves in time from the 1970s to the mid 2000s.

In Lynch's interview, Nath outlines his views on character, coincidence, speech, influence and modernity in the novel:

Note how often we use forms of the verb ‘to be’, when we refer to characters. This is not just a ‘convention’: we intuit their existence…. individuality (genuine individuality) and the soul are hated, since they can’t be rationalised – or told what to buy. Meanwhile, our thirst increases, we cannot breathe for the grit of numbers.... In public life, no one speaks in sentences; they conduct the traffic of their own meaning, they wave their hands, and emit messages. It’s uncool to say things slowly.
I would like British Story to slow things down a bit.

Genuine individuality is evident in Nath’s exhaustive account of British life, alternating between satellite views of the country and minute examinations of everyday detail. In New Welsh Review’s autumn 2012 edition, Issue 97, appeared an extract from the novel’s Chapter 21, offering a valuable insight into Nath’s impressionist style of narration:

A westerly was gusting through the trees and Kennedy wasn't at home. Temperature fell as the wind howled. He couldn’t have had more than four hours’ sleep; it was going to rain. When primitive man heard that howling, he invented spirits.” Nath’s layering of gritty, earthy imagery and philosophical observation lends a unique form to his writing.

As the premise of the book suggests, British Story is full of literary references and influences. In Chapter 10 alone he mentions The Merchant of Venice, Troilus and Cressida, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Love’s Labour’s Lost, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Ben Jonson, Dr Faustus, Marcel Foucault, Arthur Schopenhauer, François Villon, Arthur Rimbaud, and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. Similarly, in his Acknowledgements page, he mentions JW Goethe, Paul Valéry, Orson Welles and WB Yeats, to name a few. The significance of these names, and texts, throughout British Story cannot be overstated, and the echoes of these authors and their works can be seen in the tenderness with which Nath writes his own story. As he notes after a heated conversation between Mountain and Kennedy in Chapter 27, ‘Characters were like a scent bottle. To meet them was to lift the stopper; to get to know them, never to put it back; then the scent, it spread around the world.’ British Story offers a fond and meticulous account of character, both in its personae and spirit.

Éadaoín Lynch writes for New Welsh Review online


previous review: The Parrots
next review: Stormteller


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