Chinaski by Frances Vick

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Reviewed by Annabel.

A novel about a British Rock Band in the 1990s with a grainy image of a Marshall amplifier on its front cover is bound to grab the attention of someone like me who prides themselves on being knowledgeable about that period. I used to subscribe to Q and Mojo y’know (British rock mags).

Ask me about rock music today and you’ll draw a blank beyond watching a bit of Glasto on the telly or Later (which is now on too late for me). I’ll be taking my teenaged daughter to her first concert soon – but that’s McBusted so, although it’ll be fun, it doesn’t let me maintain any illusion of knowing what’s hot in the music scene for grown-ups these days.

I was delighted to be able to wallow in a bit of rock nostalgia therefore in Frances Vick’s debut novel about an indie rock band that so nearly made it. It starts in summer 1993 with a death:

Carl Howell died at a quarter to two on a sunny afternoon three days before the plumber broke the door down. He wore jeans and a t-shirt with future tour dates printed on the back.

Carl Howell was the charismatic vocalist in the up and coming indie rock band Chinaski. He died in the spare bedroom of his gran’s house and she didn’t seem to realise that something had happened, ‘He’s not been well. I told him to lie down,’ she told the police. They called Peter, his band-mate – and it was his job to let their manager Chris know. His response:

“Don’t talk to anyone. The press. I’ll handle it. …” And he put the phone down. Only later did Peter realise that Chris hadn’t asked how Carl died. …
But telling Lydia was the hardest, because she took it in a un-Lydia-like way. … That was the call that finished him. It was exhausting to feel so much pity mixed with such contempt.

By the end of this first chapter, we’ve met the three people who knew Carl best – band co-founder and drummer Peter, who had always been the quiet and dependable one and Lydia, Carl’s ex-girlfriend, the one who looked after him and kept him focused until Chris Harris got in on the act and started edging her out.
Just a few weeks ago there was talk of Chinaski touring with Nirvana – their second album was going to help them really make it. Now that could never happen. This gritty novel goes on to explore the world of Carl Howell.

Peter tells how they got together at school and how he agreed to defer university for a year to have a go at a band with Carl, who had started working at a local indie record label called Deep Focus run by husband and wife team Freida and Ian, who had really taken him under their wing. It was there they met Lydia, a punky girl who was a gig promoter. It seemed that she and Carl would be inseparable – she could read his moods better than anyone else. But it was on the road, in Germany, once their first album had done well, and a new deal with a bigger label brought them Chris Harris, a former journalist, that things started to unravel.

The band’s back-story and Carl’s own life-story are teased out in between the days that follow his death. To say it’s about sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll would be to romanticise this novel, because the author tells us how it really is without any rose-tinting. Carl definitely had a spark in him, he lived for their music and performing it, but he was badly damaged even before he began and knowing from page one how the story ends – it’s one long train-wreck coming.

Carl never gets to tell his own story. We only hear Peter, Lydia and Chris’s versions of it and they all know him differently. This allows Vick to build up some mythology around him – which point of view shows us the real Carl? Any? All? We don’t know, but everyone has their little piece of him – be it as a hero to the fans, a meal-ticket to Chris, her first true love to Lydia, or best friend to Peter. The three main characters all came alive off the page. Naturally, I felt most for poor Lydia, who had been pushed away and wasn’t there in Carl’s time of deepest need – she got a raw deal, but had to be applauded for initially holding her own in the deeply chauvinistic music business.

The novel ends with a neat ironic twist which seems very appropriate and I breathed a sigh of relief to be released from this sad and realistic story. Sad, yes, but one that I enjoyed reading very much. This is a debut novel with guts and power and I will look forward to seeing what Frances Vick writes next.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors. She has never been in a band but went out with an aspiring roadie to a Christian rock band for a bit – surreal!

Frances Vick, Chinaski, (Cillian Press, Manchester, 2014) 978-1898776081, paperback original, 250 pages.

Frances talks to Annabel about Chinaski and her musical inspirations in a BookBuzz article: click here.

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