by Tom Connolly
356 pages, Myriad
Review by Pat Black
Spiders. What’s not to like? Just because they crawl over your face and into your mouth while you sleep, that’s no reason for you to discriminate against them.
Look at the wonderful things they can make, silken nets spun from their fat bodies with their horrible hairy legs. Check out their agility, their hunting prowess, sudden darting movements they make from beneath your bed. Because they are almost certainly checking you out – perhaps even now, you are reflected in every one of their multiple eyes – with their poison fangs dripping and their mandibles clicking in anticipation at the notion of running down the back of your neck and into your clothes.
Sorry. For the record, I’m not arachnophobic – I must thank my parents for instilling a strange type of superstition in me, based on their contention that to kill a spider is unlucky – but I know plenty of them. A man I know who has jumped out of aeroplanes and served in warzones quite simply will not stand to be in the room with one of my eight-legged friends.
This is a problem he shares with Ellis O’Rourke, the boy in The Spider Truces. The laddie can’t bear to be anywhere near the creatures, which is a bit of a nuisance seeing as his father, Denny, has moved the family, including Ellis’s older sister Chrissie and their great aunt Mafi, to the garden of England – Weald of Kent – to live in a rural idyll. And if there’s one thing a spider likes, it’s to hide in an old house in the middle of nowhere.
Tom Connolly’s debut novel has lots in common with Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie – similar rural English setting, with all the yearnings and awkwardness of turning from child to man. We follow Ellis on a classic journey through the 1970s and 1980s, laughing at his Adrian Mole-esque misunderstandings and hopelessness with the opposite sex.
There’s a fine dollop of requisite randyness running through the story. First of all there is the mysterious Goat Lady, a lone shepherdess who provides Ellis and his friend with as much cheesecloth porn as a growing boy could ever need. Then we have Ellis’ recounting to his first love’s mother of how himself and his friend would skate around on the pints of semen spilled by bulls in a similarly priapic state to themselves at the farm they work on. Indeed, Ellis’ gaucheness when it comes to acting socially and speaking his mind forms a large part of his charm – he’s so ill-at-ease when it comes to conversation and social contact that I wonder if he doesn’t register as having one of the more limiting forms of autism.
And he is not half scared of spiders; the “truces” in the title speak of a covenant he reaches with the creatures in a bid to cure him of his condition, a deal thrashed out between his father, his great aunt and the Spider Elders, decreeing that the creatures shall leave him alone if he ceases killing them. His father, Denny, is a kind and caring man who shares his son’s enthusiasm for the outdoors and the peace of nature. These scenes are bucolic and poetic without being in any way pretentious, or navel-gazing – just a depiction of very simple pleasures and emotions as father and son enjoy their time together out in the countryside.
Their relationship to each other deteriorates somewhat as they both grow older. Ellis grows headstrong, reckless, and the usual teenage mistakes and silliness are magnified in the eyes of Denny. We don’t know at first how Ellis’s mother died – could it be that this has something to do with Denny’s over-protectiveness of his children, and his cold rage at his son when he decides to go inter-railing across Europe at the age of 17?
The women in Ellis’s life – his spirited sister Chrissie, and dear old great-aunt Mafi – provide counterpoints for the youngster. Mafi clearly adores her boy, while in Chrissie there are hilarious examples of sibling bickering and sniping that provide a lot of laughs.
As Ellis gets older he proves to have a great talent for getting fucked-up – whether it’s taking in great amounts of drugs or alcohol, he seems to be somewhat precocious from the moment he is caught drinking at a school assembly and not invited back to continue his school career. But through all this, he is always endearing to us. Even when he commits an unforgivable act with the wife of someone close to him, we never lose sympathy for him. Ellis is a classic dreamer in a lyrical, stylish and heart-warming piece of work. In the question-and-answer session at the end of the novel, the writer reveals that he has two more books still to come under Myriad; given this most promising of starts, I’d be very interested in checking those out.
In fact I think I’m stuck fast to Tom Connolly’s work. I struggle in the sticky cords as a spider creeps ever closer, front legs quivering... Help me!