by David Olner
Obliterati Press, 260 pages
Review by Pat Black
They say travel broadens the mind; so does an industrial crusher.
In David Olner’s debut novel The Baggage Carousel, Dan Roberts is a person who travels the world, but doesn’t like to go on about it.
Neither does he over-share things on Instagram, Facebook or wherever else feels like turning your personality into sellable data this month. Dan doesn’t travel to show off, or even to gain experience, or, god forbid, to Find Himself.
He isn’t quite running away, but he has a powerful need to be Somewhere Else. Along the way, quite by accident, meaning not by design, he Makes A Connection - with Amber, an Australian nurse with her own powerful need to be absent from the place she calls home.
Something nice happens. And maybe that’s the problem.
Like luggage which inexplicably bursts in a plane hold, The Baggage Carousel comes wrapped in tape which triggers a near-autonomic response in us as readers. This tape is marked “Romantic Comedy”, slashed through with strawberry red and vanilla.
You might think you’re about to read a crazy romance set in lush places. The book parenthesises Frank Zappa’s venomous line, “many well-dressed people in several locations are kissing quite a bit”.
At various points, the book fools you into thinking that a romantic comedy is what you’re going to get. Point one – it’s very funny, with some brilliant gags and set-ups throughout as Dan and Amber meet, become attracted to one another, and act on those impulses. Point two - you are rooting for this couple to connect, and have a future. That their story will continue past the final full stop.
The book plays with our expectations of these stories. It throws in a love rival in the form of a German hanger-on in the group, who is also interested in Amber. Who wouldn’t be interested in Amber? Despite her cynicism, you suspect she doesn’t quite realise how attractive she is. Until Dan shows up – someone a bit more worldly-wise, a bit less loud, but a bit more self-confident than the rest of the backpacking team as they jaunt across the continents.
But this sweet connection doesn’t quite arrive. There are no meet-cutes. You get something that’s a bit closer to reality, and bitter truth. This is what elevates The Baggage Carousel beyond the merry journey it first appears to be, and into the realm of something important.
We follow Dan and Amber’s thoughts - Dan looking back on the events where they meet, Amber following them as they happen. Then we get strange inserts, emails that Dan sends to Amber, starting off gentle, and then importunate, and then pathetic, and finally downright worrying.
Dan and Amber have clearly Gone Wrong, but we don’t know how or why. Dan mentions something about money he’s owed, but much like the locations Dan and Amber take us to, it’s kind of irrelevant. There’s something more combustible lurking in the baggage hold – a broken heart. Is “broken heart” a fair description after such a short courtship? Maybe it’s something worse than that. A sense of hope removed. An idea that life could be different. Being robbed of a sense of purpose. A better future being thwarted.
Dan’s sections set back home in Britain illustrate this latter point very well indeed, without referring to Amber. Dan reminisces upon his childhood experiences in the north of England, which range from “a bit difficult” to “absolutely nightmarish, as if Clive Barker had a dirty dream about David Cronenberg then felt compelled to tell a priest about it”.
Dan has suffered the trauma of losing a parent at a very young, absolutely crucial age. Like the Big Bang, that is a bombshell that never stops detonating. We see the immediate wreckage that his father’s death leaves, and also the peripheral damage it causes in a wide radius, particularly to his mother, who loses the plot and dives into the bottle, and his grandmother, who desperately tries to help even as her own health fails. Whatever parts of the young Dan’s life were unf*cked, are very quickly uber-f*cked.
Dan wrestles constantly with the past, and his alienation, throttled grief and despair manifests itself in violent outbursts that put more than one person in plaster.
Allied to this is a sense that everything might in fact be crap these days. This idea is more economic than political, but it’s sketched out unflinchingly.
The book’s snapshots of modern Britain were chilling. Dan wanders the streets in search of a job, or maybe just occupation. He goes into the charity shops that have come to dominate town centres the length of the country. Charity shops, stocked with things people have donated for nothing, staffed by people who are not paid to be there, for the benefit of those who should never have to resort to desperate measures.
Between these places, the bookies, the slot machine emporiums and bingo halls, these seem to be the only places that still thrive in large chunks of our high streets. It doesn’t seem like a good thing. It’s not reassuring to think back to 1989 or 1990, and realise that many city centres have gotten worse across the board – and 1989 and 1990 or thereabouts was not exactly a boom period if you worked outside the City of London. It doesn’t feel like progress.
I did not expect these sort of scenes when I started reading The Baggage Carousel. This book is more Ken Loach than Richard Curtis, and it isn’t scored by Coldplay – that is a job for The Sleaford Mods. There’s a lot of anger in the narrator, some suppressed, some right in your face. This book is angry about where we are now, inside and out. And through Dan and Amber, it is angry that one miserable little chance to turn things around has been dashed.
It is dashed very quickly, and – most painfully for Dan – it is dashed with good reason. “Baggage” is the key term; Dan has plenty of it. But there’s scope for improvement. Escape routes can take various forms, not just fire escapes and emergency chutes. It can only take a side-step to change a bad situation, and you end this book hoping that Dan can make it. You might sleep in the same old bed, in the same old town, but you can live in a different world.
Despite its sense of wrath and injustice, The Baggage Carousel is a tightly controlled, beautifully composed novel with far more laughs than I’ve given it credit for here. It upends our entrenched ideas of where romantic comedies can go, and what our expectations of love and fulfilment actually are. And there’s a strong, authentic working class voice at work, too.
No-one wants to be that poor bugger who ends up standing alone at the empty carousel when everyone else has f*cked off, waiting for the bag that will never arrive through those plastic curtains, as if a cremation vomited. But you see it; this happens all the time.
Olner reminds us that you don’t have to be happy about it, but sometimes you’ve got to shrug, give some things up as lost, and get on with your day. And, obviously, buy yourself some socks and pants.