Reviewed by Annabel Gaskell
Harry Christmas strode out of Caracas airport with little more than a wallet full of stolen money and the dried-up brain of a long-haul drinker. Beyond the terminal building lay the sea. Beyond the car park there were mountains. The sunset was coronary.
That’s quite an opening paragraph; I particularly liked that last short sentence. It set the tone nicely, I was already imagining that Harry Christmas was like a character on the run from a British gangster movie after a drugs deal gone wrong or something like that… but I was only partially right. Further down the page, we find out more about Harry…
Fifty-eight years old, fat, moustachioed, sporting a Panama hat, red trousers and a cream jacket, Harry Christmas flared his nostrils and sucked in his cheeks. He thought he looked terrific.
Yes, Harry is a pompous and self-opinionated old bugger, who instantly made me think of characters like Jane Gardam’s Old Filth and Alun Weaver from Kingsley Amis’ The Old Devils, but he is worse than either of them – a man behaving very badly. However, as the novel went on, I came to have some empathy for Harry as he, the archetypal old reprobate, began to see the error of his ways – a little.
But why was Harry in Caracas with the stolen money? Simply put, he jilted his future second wife and ran off with the dosh she’d put into their new joint account when he realised he couldn’t bear her, especially when he found out that she had a stepson from her first marriage she’d never told him about and that she was about to realise that he was penniless. Why Venezuela? Harry’s late first wife Emily had wanted her ashes scattered on a beach there. Harry, who had absconded with 26 grand and just the clothes on this back, now only has a little book of Emily’s favourite poems in his pocket – so his plan was to take that to the beach at Guiria as the next best thing…
… but not before having a bit of fun in Caracas. He sets about eating, drinking, exploring the city, always avoiding the hotel manager – the money or credit card won’t last. He even manages to have a one-night stand with a beautiful middle-aged Venezuelan woman, Lola Rosa, who declares that one night was enough for her!
He’s having fun – and then it stops.
The arrival of William Slade in Caracas puts paid to Harry’s retirement plans. Slade is the spurned stepson and he’s a sociopath of the highest order. He means to find and kill Harry.
Thus begins a cat and mouse chase through the rest of the novel. Harry will get robbed, beaten, arrested, and beaten again – but always manages to escape by the skin of his teeth, getting out of one predicament into another, finding new friends to help and lying his way through – usually middle-aged women, somehow staying one step ahead of Slade.
What Harry doesn’t know is that Slade, psycho that he is, is leaving a trail of damage and hurt behind that is so utterly nasty, I felt as if I was in another novel when the narrative turned to him. There were moments that made me wince and grimace with distaste and hatred for Slade.
Then the narrative turns back to Harry, and we are back in comedy caper-land and his fish out of water situation. His first bolt-hole is with an ex-pat Englishwoman who has a house in the hills where the two of them indulge in a lot of rum and he poses for her sculptures when recovered enough. Judith’s daughter Bridget sees through him a bit though and their sparring matches are hilarious:
‘You know, for my mother’s sake, I’ve been trying to change my opinion of you, but-‘
‘And what is that?’
‘That you are a selfish, self-satisfied, wholly unlikeable wanker.’
‘Well, my opinion of your opinions, young lady, is that the gallows, arsenic and the firing squad would all be preferable to tasting any more of the tripe that drips from your stillborn sensibilities.’
As the novel progresses, we gradually move from laughing at Harry’s antics towards a more sympathetic view of him – although he is a lying cheat and he shouldn’t have stolen the money, he was right to ditch Diana. It is touching to find him still grieving for Emily and we will gradually find out more about their relationship as he is still determined to visit her beach.
I did find myself hoping for a happy ending – that he would find a good woman like Emily and calm down his excesses through love, that something equally nasty would happen to Slade as retribution for his vile acts, and that Harry would find Emily’s beach and lay his grief to rest, but it would be telling too much to let you know how the story continues.
Gibson does bring Venezuela and its people to life – he lived and worked there for a while. The atmosphere is tropical, the people are full of life and the scenery is lush, yet many still live in poverty, the system is corrupt, but the people love Chavez – ‘a little bit of politics’ as Ben Elton would say.
The paperback of Gibson’s novel comes with a quote from Michael Palin on the front, ‘Very funny, very unpleasant and very moving.’ I can’t do better than that to encapsulate it! For a debut novel taking on the difficult task of being funny, Gibson has succeeded, but the novel is much more than that having profoundly dark overtones, and many touching moments – but I’m just paraphrasing Palin there. Apart from the nasty bits, I found this novel entertaining and involving. It was definitely a good read and I hope that Jasper Gibson writes more for I’ll gladly read it.
Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors, and has yet to visit South America – it sounds almost too full of life!
Jasper Gibson, A Bright Moon For Fools (Simon & Schuster, London, 2013) 978-1471138829, paperback 2014, 368 pages.