Magazine article The Spectator

Leaving Sussex

Magazine article The Spectator

Leaving Sussex

Article excerpt

Ysenda Maxtone Graham Motherland by William Nicholson Quercus, £16.99, pp. 544, ISBN 9781780876203 I read William Nicholson's new novel in proof before Christmas. 'The must-read book for 2013 for lovers of William Boyd and Sebastian Faulks, ' it said on the back. Well, I like Boyd and Faulks, but I positively love William Nicholson, so I found that come-on slightly grating.

Then I saw what the publicity people meant. Nicholson has broken out of his small, square two inches of ivory. His previous three novels were set over the course of a few days in the southeast of England.

A typical chapter was called 'Saturday'.

Motherland spans 11 years, set in Sussex, France, India, Jamaica and New Orleans.

Part One is called 'War: 1942-45'. The pivotal scene of the book is a seaborne raid on the beaches of Dieppe.

'He's written a much more broad-sweeping novel this time, ' I told my friends with whom I'd been sharing a Nicholson passion for the past year. 'It's set in the second world war.'

'No, not the second world war, please, ' said one friend. 'I want him to carry on writing about being us, now.'

That, you see, is what Nicholson is so good at. It has been a great joy for us to discover this male (and heterosexual) writer who writes brilliantly about what it is really like to be a woman or a man, right now. His particular gift is to take you inside the contemporary mind, tracing our trains of thought with astonishing agility, sensitivity and honesty. He also writes very sexily about sex in an acceptably literary way, and we love this too.

But you can see his dilemma. He had finished the 'Sussex trilogy' and was aching to write more about the fictional family he had created. Where could he go from there? Of course: he could go to the past. He could write about the grandparents of the contemporary characters. Like building a loft-extension or digging out the basement, this is a clever way of expanding your empire without having to uproot yourself or your reading family.

He has every right to try his hand at a broad-canvassed novel in which big events happen: military catastrophe, voyages across oceans, the bloody dawn of Indian independence, ruptures in the banana trade, births, marriages, break-ups and deaths. It just takes some getting used to for his fans who really like him to describe in depth what it's like to sit in a waiting-room. In his previous novels, events intervened on the train of thought, rather than the other way round.

After Christmas I was sent the hardback of the book and read it all over again, this time taking notes. Such a good writer is Nicholson that you're inspired to do 'prac. …

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