by Sophie Duffy
Publisher: Legend Press
Review: Jane Turley
I am forty six years old. I usually tell people I’m twenty nine and wait for the raised eyebrows but since I was born in the same year as the protagonist of Sophie Duffy’s debut novel The Generation Game I thought I’d come clean.
The novel, which has won both the Yeovil Literary Prize (2006) and Legend Press’ Luke Bitmead Bursary award (2011), follows the life of the Philippa Smith, from her birth in 1965 until shortly after the birth of her own daughter in 2005. It is a novel where the protagonist’s life is inextricably entwined both culturally and historically with the latter half of twentieth century British life. From skinheads to punk rockers, from long hot summers to howling hurricanes, from Blue Peter to University Challenge and from Princess Diana’s extraordinary marriage to even more extraordinary death this is a novel which accurately reflects the culture and sentiments of the period. I know, I lived through it.
The Generation Game takes its title from the family TV game show first hosted in 1971 by Bruce Forsyth, who now hosts Strictly Dancing in the UK, and later by the entertainingly camp Larry Grayson before being camp was de rigueur on television. In those days families still clustered around the television on Saturday nights to watch Bruce and Larry poke innocent fun at families making fools of themselves on primetime television. It was before 24 hour trading, Xboxes and the Internet and before family games shows were replaced by the addictions of Facebook, celebrity culture and reality TV. Back then, Jack Regan in The Sweeney, grumpy and weather beaten in his leather jacket, was considered “hard”.
How times have changed.
Sophie Duffy has a BA in English and a MA in Creative Writing so, as perhaps one might imagine, the novel is cleverly devised with the complexities of relationships and Philippa’s search for identity complemented by a backdrop of social change, in particular that of the 1970s and 1980s. An appearance on the television with Larry Grayson in The Generation Game forms a central part of the novel and the chapters, titled as family game shows, signpost the emotional events thus tying the novel neatly together. It’s an interesting concept. I felt it got a little bogged down though in nostalgia and historical context at times and the constant references to period favourites like Valerie Singleton, Rubik’s Cube, sherbet lemons and so on became a little tedious; as if the author had made a long list and was determined to squeeze them all into the story. Nevertheless, for those who want a taste of this era or want to indulge their memories this habit will, no doubt, be more than welcome. The historical and cultural references don’t detract too much from the story and it’s a colourful journey as Philippa moves through her life; abandoned by her family, adopted by a new one and finally having her own. At least, that’s what you assume is happening but they’re a few surprises along the way. Ultimately, the message is that somehow, whatever cruelty, circumstance or society throws at you, blood ties are strong and will triumph in the end. There’s also the message that families aren’t just about relatives but also those we welcome into our hearts. It’s a heart-warming, although perhaps slightly idealistic, ending. The book will probably appeal to many readers of women’s fiction.
Of course, family relationships and the ties between one generation and the next are important because our history, in many ways, defines us. Sadly though, when people carry forward the anxieties and dramas of the past those legacies can be negative, even destructive. For example, there is evidence to suggest that children of divorced parents follow the same repetitive pattern, likewise child molesters and abusive parents. Sometimes people spend their whole lives searching for their birth parents or trying to “discover” themselves and this is very much the case with Philippa in The Generation Game. Subconsciously, Philippa almost mirrors preceding events which makes for an interesting story but also leaves a sense of frustration and unease with her character. There were times I grew impatient with her and just wanted her to put the uncertainty behind, grab hold of the present and make something substantial of her life. For, in reality, as much as we might want to apportion blame or responsibility or search for questions to which there may never be answers, there is a time, as adults, when we must seize control of our own destinies. Eventually, I’m afraid I just wanted to slap Philippa with a wet fish. A particularly big one.
So there was much in The Generation Game to entertain and provide food for thought about relationships and family. However, I was less convinced about the use of language, particularly the story being told from the perspectives of Philippa as a child and Philippa as an adult but in more or less the same voice. I felt the voice of the young Philippa didn’t work so well as it was predominantly written in an adult style with adult vocabulary yet it was also interspersed with words capitalised as proper nouns to indicate their importance in a child’s world as well as frequent brackets to qualify childish thoughts – or for no apparent reason at all. (Nope, couldn’t figure that one out at all but the brackets looked pretty.) The voice of a child when written well, as in Emma Donoghue’s Room, can be incredibly powerful. However, the mash-up of voice and techniques in The Generation Game didn’t quite gel for me, although it might for some. Above all, what irked me most about this book was the overuse of the word “And” at the beginning of numerous sentences; on average it appeared twice every page. And, it would be fair to say, it drove me stark, raving mad.
Some writers’ quirks can be quite annoying. For instance, some people can’t get on with Cormac McCarthy because of his lack of punctuation although I’d agree with his rationale that “less is more.” So for my taste, overall there was too much going on in The Generation Game; too much superfluous punctuation, too many characters, too many historical references and too much leaping backwards and forwards in time. I think if Sophie keeps her next novel simpler the power of her genuine creativity will truly shine through.