Beauty by Raphael Selbourne

Author: Raphael Selbourne
Publisher: Tindal Street Press
Review: Charlie Wykes

‘Write what you know’. Sound and oft repeated advice for the fledgling novelist and a cursory glance at Raphael Selbourne’s CV – son of an acclaimed historian and philosopher and raised in Oxford and the West Country before teaching in Italy - might suggest he wasn’t listening. Dig a little deeper though and you find that Selbourne actually listens very hard indeed.

Beauty introduces us to a 20 year old girl from a Bangladeshi family living in Wolverhampton and caught in an intolerable situation. Her father and older brother want her to marry an older man from Bangladesh and have gone so far as to have her sent there as a young girl, meaning she has little formal education and for much of her life has been abused, both physically and mentally. Her means of resistance was to appear faggol, crazy and no-one wants a crazy wife so after some years she is sent back to England. In her family’s eyes a sister and daughter who is mad and unwanted is deeply shameful and so the conflict remains.

Al-lᾱh, why they doing this to me? What did I do wrong?
I aynt going to marry no one to save the old man’s face. I’d rather die. Especially not a mullah. For him I suffered.

Perhaps if they could hide her away she might give in but in order for her to continue to receive benefits she has to attend a course organised by the job centre and this exposes her to a world she knows extraordinarily (to us) little about. In Beauty’s eyes Wolverhampton is a place of licentious and dirty people, immoral at best and dangerous and sexually predatory at worst. Her upbringing leads her to see what we might argue as necessary freedoms and rights as a moral vacuum that threatens her values but at the same time makes her question whether her family’s view of the world is the only one she might hold.

What was it like to be one of these people?
If she stayed out, would she become like them?
At least they didn’t have to worry about marriage stuff. They were free from that.

Then Beauty makes a momentous and life changing decision – to escape her home and find refuge in, to her (and let’s be honest here, to most middle class readers), the alien streets and culture of Wolverhampton’s multi-cultural and economically poor communities.

Beauty is a survivor, much tougher, smarter and compassionate than she believes herself to be. She is also strikingly attractive, something else she is oblivious to. The people she meets are not and her combination of naivety and virtue is hard to resist. There is a page turning story to be found here so I am not going to spoil how it turns out by telling you much about Mark – shaven headed, ex-offender, bull terrier breeder - and Peter – separated, middle class and in mid-life crisis – as their motivations are revealed as they are very satisfactorily fleshed out page by page. What I will say is that they are entirely credible, which brings me back to Selbourne’s exceptional ear.

I try to resist knowing too much about an author, their work or what others have said whilst I’m reading them for the first time but I couldn’t help myself with Selbourne. I had even intended to steer clear of our own interview until I was at least close to the end of Beauty but it didn’t work out that way. I just had to know how Selbourne makes this book read so true. The answer, at least as I see it, sounds simple but is one of the hardest parts of the writers craft; he hears what people have to say. And not just their stories but how they tell them, both to themselves and others. I’ll return to dialogue in a moment because it is at the heart of Beauty but what is also important in making this book a success is the questions Beauty asks of herself, her family and the world. Are the prices we pay for our freedoms really worth paying? Perhaps it can be worth sacrificing some liberty for family? Might rights also come with responsibilities? Beauty poses these questions to herself and to the reader. How we choose to answer is up to us because Selbourne doesn’t preach; rather he shows us communities we may not be familiar with and asks us to think hard about whether their values and aspirations as any more or less worthy than ours.

Does this sound a little ‘heavy’? A little too much subtext? Characters declaiming fully formed philosophies that their education and backgrounds would not have brought them to? It is certainly not unknown for authors to use characters as mere mouthpieces for their own speeches rather than tell stories where the participants speak for themselves. Well fear not. Selbourne is remarkably attuned to the world around him, his characters think and speak as their lives have shaped them yet can be caring, wise and philosophical despite being denied access to what many of us take for granted.

But what did she know, a dumb girl who believed in God? That white guy, Peter, had looked at her like he felt sorry for her. If white people’s laws were based on Ehudi and Christian stuff, like he said, why did they throw their parents away when they got old?
Didn’t they have laws for looking after their mum and dad?
Is that what people meant by being free?

I’ll not pretend to know Beauty’s life or culture but Peter? Peter’s partner? Days spent on Job Centre courses? Even aspects of Mark? I know those and he is spot on. I am willing to bet his portrayal of the difficulties Bangladeshi immigrants face, how they might see this country and how it shapes them is as equally right.

On the page this extends to Selbourne using extensive phonetic dialogue.

‘Keep yer fookin’ eyes open, will y’? There’s two radiators over there,’ Bob said, stoping the van. ‘Fooksake, where’s yer fookin’ head?’
‘Sorry mate. Giss a hand then.’
‘Caar you diw ‘em on yer own?’

This takes a few pages to become attuned to but when it is done well, as it is here, it is powerful indeed. This is Selbourne the craftsman. I am certain he has met, listened to, and understood many voices in writing this book. I picture him in kebab shops and nursing homes, riding night buses through Wolverhampton on the way back from pubs, interested in and empathic to the people he meets, allowing them space to share aspects of their lives with him. Call it research; call it an interest in humanity. Not all writers, even successful ones, can do this but the great ones always have.

This is not a perfect novel. There are occasional moments that jar and I felt perhaps too much happens too quickly but it was an enormously satisfying read nonetheless, both challenging and engrossing and I want more. His wonderfully deft use of dialogue, both spoken and internal brings Tom Wolfe to my mind as does his ability to chronicle our times. On that basis I’ll tip Selbourne to become an important voice in British literature, maybe a great one. Beauty won the 2009 Costa First Novel prize. If Selbourne keeps listening he’ll no doubt have more acceptance speeches to make.

To read our interview with Raphael click here


Anonymous said...

An odd angle in this review, where you type cast your expectations concerning Selbourne's background. In many respects you seek to box him using the same detective methodology by which you ctritque the value of the work he produces. Is it authentic ? Is his book about being authenticity itself ? Or is Selbourne a middle class twat hiding out in some fantasy slumming it ? Perhaps the accusation your approach betrays denies the degree by which he a whole person too and not a type. perhaps he's finding his place in the world and his background and chosen experiences have actually prepared him to be knowledgable about the stuff he writes about. The overriding question your review seems concerned with is, will Selbourne walk away from the world he scrutinizes so earnestly ? Is he loyal to or does he exploit his subject for his own literary gains ? What right has someone with such a background as he to fay such familiarity with these characters ? I'm just not sure that this line of questioning doesnt miss the point about how life is, how free we all are to go out there and how each of us arrives at a thing via very disperate ways. Perhaps the reason this book went on to win the costa prize is because it actually contains genuine attention to detail. Genuine observation and emotionl connection. My verdict is that for any first novelist you have to raise the stakes regarding what you hope they will aim for if they stick at this craft by initially giving them the benifit of the doubt. It may yet be too early to judge what, if at all Selbourne understands about his project to become an author.

Anonymous said...

No, actually. Selbourne is definitely NOT correct about the way Bengali women live (I am one). The book is highly stereotypical and exaggerated and I found it insulting - particularly the portrayal of Asian men as monsters - these are my brothers your talking about! As a Bengali woman, I found the novel to be unrealistic - I cant really imagine how a supposedly 'religious' Bengali woman could end up in the situation that Beauty was in. he obviously isnt religious at all, especially if her faith in her religion is rocked by one simple sentence by some pervert. Urgh! whatever!
dumb book.