160 pages, Caffeine Nights Publishing
Review by Bill Kirton
This is a triumph. Books which you ‘just can’t put down’ come along all too rarely and, for all the pleasure that my other reads this year have given me, I haven’t been able to say that of any until now. If the need to sleep hadn’t intervened, I’d have read it in one sitting. In the event, it took two.
It’s a first person narrative, conveyed by John and featuring the bunch of people around him as he grew up in London’s East End in the 70s and 80s. The voice is haunting and has the power and authenticity that made such huge hits of Catcher in the Rye and Vernon God Little. It establishes right from the start John’s familial and social situation, and the minute to minute shifts in mood that convey the fact that he’s capable (like the rest of us) of loving his parents, sister and friends (including the strange new neighbour Kenny), and hating them at the same time. It’s solipsism without narcissism. What he writes is exactly what he’s feeling at the moment he writes it.
And yet, as the remarkable descriptions of going to and watching football matches with his dad demonstrate, it’s not egotistical. He’s aware of being part of a clan and of the community to which he belongs, its good and bad aspects. He sees his own elations and depressions shared by others.
Arys has done a terrific job of giving his narrator a clear moral perspective and the ability to judge and be compassionate towards others while at the same time showing how his own impulses and the circumstances in which he finds himself turn him into a time-served criminal. And yet, for all that, John is NOT one of the bad guys. Some of the characters are but even then, the moral climate in which they all live can’t be easily reduced to a set of formulae.
And, to make the achievement even more remarkable, the voice not only maintains its consistency (even as the moods of the character shift back and forth), it also ages as the narrator does. In the early pages, he’s at primary school, being thrilled by getting a bike for Christmas, experiencing the pettiness and pains of playground games but, as he grows into manhood, the language and his emotions mature. Which is not to say that the language ever escapes from the lousy grammar which is characteristic of the particular London vernacular he uses. The authenticity of the whole depends on that being maintained. ‘Bad’ English is an essential part of the fabric of the novel. It’s the way Arys conveys mood, setting and, most of all, character.
But all I’ve said so far is ‘reviewer-speak’. It’s the sort of analysis we do when we tease out a novel’s component parts to try to explain why it works. It conveys nothing of the way Abide With Me pulls you into itself, makes the world of John and the rest an intense experience and involves you in its tensions, its laughter and its losses. I think the author’s only problem is how on earth he’s going to follow it up.