Reviewed by Victoria Best
I love novels about life on the stage, though they are a relatively rare genre. Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes was one of the key books of my childhood, Angela Carter’s Wise Children one of the most memorable of my adulthood. In between came Margaret Drabble’s The Garrick Year, Deborah Moggach’s The Ex-Wives, Dodie Smith’s The Town In Bloom. Just recently the theatre has been cropping up here and there in the work of some of our finest women novelists – The Rehearsal (2010) by Eleanor Catton, Lucky Break (2012) by Esther Freud and now Sadie Jones with her most recent novel, Fallout. All three have been rich in atmosphere, clever, penetrating. Theatre brings forth a certain kind of character, both passionate and flaky, and raises intriguing issues about authenticity and what it might mean to people who slip in and out of different skins. And then there’s the dirty business of show business where the razzle dazzle of artifice fails to hide the usual cutthroat impulses of greed and vanity. Sadie Jones draws on all these powerful elements in Fallout, to create an unusual type of love story.
Luke Kanowski and Nina Hollings first ‘meet’ in 1961 when they are still children. Luke has sprung his mother from the asylum – the only place he has ever known her to be – in order to bring her to an exhibition of French paintings at the National Gallery. He has done his inadequate best to provide her with outdoor clothing: ‘She in her wellingtons and wrapped-around cardigan like a gypsy; he with his home-cut hair, humiliated all at once by context. Mother and son held hands so tightly their bones dug into one another.’ Nina is also there on a rare trip out with the mother she sees far too infrequently and who is now leaving, as usual. Her stable but unenticing Aunt Mat has peeled her hysterical form off her mother and is trying to distract her with pigeons when Nina notices a much more gripping drama unfolding on the steps of the art gallery. A woman in wellingtons and her son are being led away by police: ‘Everyone had looked at the woman – her distress, her pallor. She was so fragile, with the scruffy boy who was too young to look after anybody standing over her, resolute and protective. Nina realised what she felt; it was envy.’ Melodramatic Nina, suffering from benign neglect and low self-esteem sees not the crisis but the calm eye of the storm: ‘It seemed to her a wonderful thing to be so helpless; to be taken up, and saved.’
The years pass and at the end of the 60s Luke has a surprise encounter which will determine the course of his life. Working in a paper mill in dull industrial Seston, he is marking time and going nowhere when one rainy evening Paul and Leigh hail him from their car to ask for directions. They are searching for an obscure playwright who is supposed to appear at a working men’s pub. They never do track the playwright down, but Luke is entranced by his new friends – amiable Paul who wants to be a producer and spiky, proto-feminist Leigh, who hates to be called baby names or asked if she’s an actress. The encounter wakes Luke up. Before long he is heading down to London on the offchance he can fall in with them again and become involved in the theatre, the crucible of his precious and secret ambitions. He writes, but his sense of entitlement is so limited that he can’t show his work to anyone else.
Sadie Jones brings this transitional era of London theatre to vivid life. Luke, Paul and Leigh start up a small experimental company, putting on political works about striking miners in the upstairs room of a pub, while the big theatres appeal to the masses with mindless risqué farce of the Carry On variety. Paul’s company has its moments of glory, but it’s headed for disaster. Luke can’t help but sleep with most of the women they employ and only restrains himself where Leigh is concerned. He is aware that Paul is in love with her, and that they don’t need the strain on their threesome. For Leigh, his choice is a bittersweet one. She wants a reliable man like Paul and does her best to ignore the prompting of her own instincts towards Luke.
In any case, Nina has now grown up and taken over her mother’s ambitions for her. She has become a beauty and an actress, and married the producer her mother picked out for her. Denied autonomy all her life and ever more helpless within her circumstances, she longs for rescue but is dimly aware it is too late. When she and Luke meet again, their idealised childhood imagos of victim and rescuer slot into place and they embark on an amour fou that will threaten everything they cherish and have worked for.
This is an engrossing and beautifully written novel about the way that the wounds of the past prompt us into love affairs that ought to be healing, but that only cause more pain. Although it is about crisis and the fallout that comes from the blind and stubborn pursuit of unhealthy desires, it is also about passion and inspiration. The theatre is an enchanting mistress to whose delight all of the characters are unquestioningly dedicated. There’s no sense that this might be a mistake, either. The ability to devote themselves to art becomes the saving grace of all four protagonists. This is a brilliant evocation of the exquisite pain of misalliances in love; the sections where Luke and Nina live out their crazy passion are startlingly authentic and mildly excruciating. It’s also a wonderful evocation of an exciting era in the history of theatre. I loved it.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Sadie Jones, Fallout (Chatto & Windus, May 2014) 978-0701188504, 416 pages, hardback.