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Monday, 1 October 2012

The Adult by Joe Stretch

I was always a fan of Joe Stretch's band Performance, and keenly read his first couple of books as soon as they were on sale. I loved his witty yet uncomfortable prose and I have to admit that the novelty of recognising familiar Manchester locations amidst the pages held quite a silly sort of appeal for me. So I don't understand how the release of The Adult almost managed to completely slip under my radar. It wasn't until a week or so after I got my copy that I saw the first review of it in print (courtesy of The Guardian) and even now I haven't heard any buzz about it anywhere else. Which is a shame, as it's an excellent novel.

Usually I prefer to summarise plots in my own words rather than doing a sneaky copy-and-paste from Goodreads or Amazon, but here I am going to make an exception and use the official blurb because I think it sums things up rather well:

"Jim Thorne. He wants to understand love.
His mum. Her three sisters have epic perms. And they're famous.
Dad. Dad's focused on a vital question: Mario or Sonic?
It's England, 1989-2009. So expect a little history."

That's all there is to it - this book is about Jim and his life and his family. About the struggles of having to be an adolescent man in a family full of women. About growing up with unhappy parents in the North of England. Although this makes it sound like little more than a character study and it really runs a whole lot deeper than that. I suppose you could call it a 'coming of age' tale, but I won't because I don't usually enjoy stories with that label, and moreover I'm not sure whether Jim ever actually does grow up or 'come of age' or learn anything about how to relate to people in the end.

One thing The Adult never is, is a comfortable read. There were times when I found myself cringing on Jim's behalf and my heart ached for him, but equally there were times when I felt he was a repulsive human being who deserved no sympathy whatsoever. Either way, there is a constant horrible  sense of inevitability. Jim is unquestionably one of life's strugglers. His clumsy awkwardness - is that a real word? - is portrayed perfectly. This unease is nicely balanced by the dry humour that I loved in Stretch's earlier books. There is also a healthy dose of 1990s nostalgia backed up by numerous pop culture references that manage to highlight some of the things that were terrible about that decade while simultaneously making me wish I was back there. It's quite cleverly done without the aid of any sentimental rose-tinted glasses.

The main thing that strikes me about this novel is how much more sensitive and, I suppose, more 'human' it is than its predecessors. There is definitely a more emotional undercurrent running through The Adult than either Friction or Wildlife and this makes it much more accessible. While I thought both of those books were great, they are certainly bleak and often shocking. Some of my friends couldn't finish them and I definitely wouldn't pass them on to my mum, whereas I think Mum would quite enjoy this one. When he starts writing novels that my Grandma would read I might start to worry, but for now I think Joe Stretch is definitely onto a winner and I hope The Adult gets some more recognition over the coming autumn.

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