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
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.