Fallout by Sadie Jones
In 1971, Luke Kanowski leaves the small town of Seston for London with a few bags of his possessions, including his record player and notebooks. A long-time theatre appreciator who’s never seen a play, it takes a chance encounter with two people about his own age, Paul Driscoll and Leigh Radley, to motivate him into quitting his clerk job and leaving his parents behind to embark on his own life. His mother has been locked up in the mental asylum in Seston since Luke was five; he visits her often and resents his father, a Polish migrant who once flew fighter planes in World War II, for never seeing her or talking to her. He takes the train to London and calls the one person he knows there: Paul.
Paul is not much past twenty but doesn’t want to be the engineer his father pushed him to be. He wants to be a producer. Now with Luke on side, a plan begins to take shape and a fledgling theatre company arises. With several others, they form Graft, a small, artsy theatre above a pub. When handsome, charming Luke sleeps with the stage manager and then doesn’t talk to her again, she leaves and they hire Leigh. The same spark of familiarity, connection and desire that was there when they first met is still alive, but Luke is taking the admonishment of not sleeping with the stage manager to heart, and steps back. Paul fills the gap, and after a while of dating him Leigh moves in to their flat and the three settle into a comfortable rhythm.
Also in London is Nina, a young actress trying to break in. Raised mostly by her absent (and unknown) father’s sister, her mother has been the dominant presence in her life. An actress who didn’t want the burden of raising a child she didn’t want, Marianne is selfish and egotistical. All Nina has ever wanted is her mother’s love and approval; she’ll do anything and become anything to make her mother happy. That’s how she finds herself going to drama school, even though she’s so shy, and how she became a shell of a person easily sculpted by anyone dominant and confident enough to take on the task. Which is what happens when she meets Tony Moore, a producer and one of her mother’s young ex-lovers. Tony arranges her, dresses her and trains her like something between a doll and a pet. Nina hides so deeply behind a blank – appeasing and pleasing – mask that it’s not long before any vestige of an individual person able to break free and create a life for herself is gone.
It’s at the performance of In Custody, a heavy play in which Nina stars, that Luke first really sees her. Barefoot, blind-folded and gagged, she comes onto the stage after an intense, dark opening in which the sounds of heavy doors opening and slamming shut can be heard. The experienced is terrifying for Luke, whose mother has been locked up for so long; when he sees vulnerable Nina, when her face is bared to him, he sees a frightened young woman who needs to be freed.
It is Luke’s all-consuming love for Nina, and the affair they embark upon, that ruins old friendships and nearly scuttles his just-blooming career as a playwright. Fallout is a coming-of-age novel for both Luke and Nina, a vividly-real, intimate look into what drives us, what shapes us and what love can cost us.
This might very well be my favourite Sadie Jones novel to date, although I can’t really say that because I really do like all her novels quite a lot and the ones I’ve read so far have all been quite different (I haven’t yet read Small Wars; really must!). There is something holding me back from full-out loving her books, but for the first half-ish of Fallout I was definitely in the “love” zone. My copy is an uncorrected proof (an ARC), which meant it had lots of typos, nothing major, but it did also have a slightly unpolished feel to it. The prose was, at times, a bit awkward or unclear, the punctuation so technically incorrect that the emphasis or meaning of a sentence was distorted or lost, rendering some parts unnecessarily clumsy, like you’ve stumbled on an uneven floor. Again, hard to know if the punctuation was going to be fixed or whether this is the style she’s developed, but the control over commas versus semicolons or even periods was sloppy. The comma isn’t the “new” semicolon; they affect a sentence quite differently. Misuse either one and you ruin the rhythm of your words and disrupt the flow. You can be “experimental” with punctuation, but you can also create an annoyingly disjointed mess if you don’t do it well.
This is a story about people, about Luke and Nina, Paul and Leigh, about relationships, love, the battle scars in our relationships and the mistakes we make – and sometimes learn from. The characters are real, believable, familiar. The most interesting and confronting of them all was Nina, someone you pity and feel infinitely sorry for, but whom you can’t respect. She lacks will, she lacks grit, she lacks perspective. She is a product of her mother’s critique and Tony’s homoerotic desires (for instance, her mother keeps her skinny because chunky girls don’t get hired; Tony keeps her skinny because he likes her to look like a boy). The arrival of Luke in her life, someone she feels instantly drawn and attracted to in the same way he does with her, presents an opportunity: a chance to take control of her life, figure out who she is and what she wants, and be fulfilled and happy.
But Nina has a diseased soul. Theirs is a love affair that begins with such hope and promise – you truly, truly want them both to be happy, and free, and together – that soon becomes something poisonous and even destructive. I sometimes hear, in movies maybe, people say that they’re with the right person for the wrong reasons, or the wrong person for the right reasons, or some variation on that theme. There was a touch of that here. What I loved about it was how truthful, honest and messy it all was. Jones has a real knack for capturing ordinary, middle-class people in all their glorious strengths and flaws, and letting events play out naturally. While I did find that there was a slight sense of an author-creator (god-figure) manoeuvring pieces into place (it’s the way she writes), once there the characters took over, their personalities guiding events and their ultimate fallout.
The star of the story was the setting and era itself: the backdrop for the fallout of relationships. London in the late 60s and early 70s is a place on the cusp, a place discovering love and life and excitement. A place still being held back by the tight grip of tradition and society but increasingly stretching its wings. Theatre is prominent, and popular. New bands and music rock the airwaves – which people actually listen to. It incorporates women’s lib but nothing overtly political or radical. This is a story set in the hearts of its characters, rather than their heads. While there, I felt like I was there. I could picture things quite well thanks to all the British telly I’ve watched over my lifetime, and the flavour of their speech really helps catapult you there. Eminently readable but not exactly pleasurable, Fallout had me wrapped up in the characters so that I was going to bed thinking about them, however disquieting and somehow off the story and the writing was at times.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.
“It’s these stagnant gender roles that mar Fallout, despite its strong writing and interesting subject matter. While still worth reading, especially if you have enjoyed Jones’s previous novels, I’m afraid it only confirms my previous frustrations with Jones’s work.” Laura Reading Books
“I think Fallout will divide people; I suspect there are fans of The Outcast and Small Wars, in particular, who will find this sprawling and less concentrated in terms of themes and settings. Personally, I think this is a mature, thoughtful novel and Jones’ best work yet.” The Writes of Woman
“There’s a certain grim humorlessness in this novel; I found myself wishing for some comic relief. I recall reading somewhere that no one in a Chekhov play is ever happy, and this book reminded me a bit of a Chekhov play.” Books on the Table
“I do feel that Jones did a great job of portraying the times of this book, and a more conservative reader may not appreciate that. With themes of love, dreams, and theater, I don’t hesitate in recommending this book for either personal leisure or as a book club selection.” Jo-Jo Loves to Read!
Missed yours? Leave me a link and I’ll add it.