Magazine article The Spectator

The Comforts of Oddness

Magazine article The Spectator

The Comforts of Oddness

Article excerpt

FIVE BOYS by Mick Jackson Faber, L10.99, pp. 248 ISBN 0571206131

Mick Jackson has waited four years before publishing his second novel, the first being The Underground Man which was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1997. The same ferocious face looks out at us from the back flap. This must be a man of wrath? A man perhaps not unacquainted with semtex and the Maze?

Nothing of the sort. The earlier novel, a brilliant, fictional portrait of the fifth duke of Portland, the duke who dug all the tunnels, for no apparent reason, beneath his stately home in Nottinghamshire and who was reputed to be a monster, is a most tender book, understanding the contribution eccentricity has made to English history. This second novel is no less loving and more aware of the evil that lies behind the windows of the poor and innocent village parlours. There is an affectionate scene in which a boy kicks at a hole in the wainscot of a derelict house, very jaunty, and releases 'a river of rats'.

Five Boys, a century on from The Underground Man, is an historical novel too, but set in living memory in the West Country of 1939-44. In the rest of England the West Country was considered to be out of the war and very comfortable. Jackson has obviously had a good time researching the living memory and has found that it was otherwise. Nottinghamshire may suit his quirky nature better. It is still a rough-cast county of dark woods and old mine workings and great houses. It's the county of D. H. Lawrence and Samuel Butler. It suits Jackson's gift for conveying fear and passion. The West Country is well known and easy and suits almost any genial folk.

As Graham Swift chose the landscape of Waterland because it seemed so dull, perhaps Jackson was drawn to Devon because of its surface prettiness? He remains sternly unreduced by it. There are no charming people who say 'm'dear' or give you a cream tea, though in the war I dare say there were no cream teas on offer. It was the invasive GIs with their tinned fruit who cheered up the local menus as they cheered up the local girls, and who also died in the scandalous local mockbattle of Slapton Sands.

I suspect it was the enormity of the battle of Slapton Sands that lit the spark for this novel. The true facts of it, long `TopSecret', have edged forward the past five years, but have been uneasily and widely known for 50, and they are the grim and proper fodder for a novel.

Jackson addresses them obliquely, reporting the 'battle' with its mistaken live ammunition going on just offstage. The society we meet in chapter one, static for centuries, in part two is removed from its roots inland, not to be allowed back for years. This happens between chapters. Barbed wire goes up. Sentries parade. Nobody actually complains. It's the war, and nobody knows what anybody is doing anyway.

There is a set-piece sortie, that reads like an episode from a French sitcom, of hungry villagers dressed as mourners and carrying an empty coffin going back through the wire to capture an abandoned pig. They hear gunfire and see ships that could be German but treat it as a silly joke. The Americans are being exuberant, as they are at the village hops. Glorious well-fed young men `at ease with their own bodies' giving the village girls their new nylons.

In 1939, chapter one, the village was quiet and sleepy, a picture-postcard place that was going to miss its church bells and would continue to tend its war memorial. …

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