By Jonathan Taylor
Published by Salt Publishing
Reviewed by Jessica Patient
I know that it’s still quite early in the year for declaring contenders for best book of year but I don’t care. Entertaining Strangers by Jonathan Taylor is my favourite of the year so far.
The year is 1997 and change is on the way not only in the world – the Labour Party wins the election, the death of Princess Diana but also change for our characters. Jules, our narrator goes from being homeless to holding a glass of Vermouth in his hand, listening to Edwin lecture on the virtues of ants in a matter of pages within a matter of minutes. Edwin is an intellectual man who has no job, his wife has left him and has a casual affair with his landlady as a way of paying his rent. His benefit money goes on wine and ants.
“I’d sat down for a minute on a dog-piss-soaked doorstep in a dog-piss street in a dog-piss town, when the door I was leaning against gave behind me.”
The poetic prose is witty and sharp as Taylor takes the reader through the bleakness of Edwin and Jules’s antics, bringing together an unlikely mix of mental illness, ants, obsessive behaviours and memory in a hilarious but tragic story. Entertaining Strangers is an assortment of the chaotic humour of Black Books blended with the characters from Michael Smith’s The Giro Playboy and Withnail and I.
“I felt strangely disconnected from the world of the newspaper, and this feeling of disconnection had intensified over the last few months.”
Through Edwin and Jules, Taylor explores the push and pull between the intellectual world and the everyday, mundane world. Taylor juxtapositions low-end culture pressed up closely to high-end culture within the confines of Edwin’s grubby flat. The reader watches as Edwin seesaws between a worn out video tap of an ant documentary and a computer video game about ants alongside Edwin’s obsession with apocalyptic classical music. There are times when all three are on at once and Edwin is running around in a chaotic state, unable to concentrate and focus on one thing. Taylor adds touches of humour when Edwin’s life spirals out of control and his obsession with ants and classical music and wine consumes his life.
All of the characters within Entertaining Strangers are tangled with the past, unable to move forward with their lives. The presence of Edwin’s Grandfather still haunts Edwin’s estranged brother and his mother. Their disconnection echoes Edwin’s life. Even our narrator, Jules, who seems passive at the beginning, can not remember the past and is stuck with bad dreams about a girl burning to death in Smyrna, seventy-five years ago.
Entertaining Strangers is an intelligent, funny and tragic book. This book deserves to win lots of awards and be read by lots of people. Highly recommended.