Graceland by Bethan Roberts

Reviewed by Annabel

bethan roberts graceland

When I saw that Bethan Roberts’s new book had Elvis on the cover, I was instantly intrigued. Having followed Bethan’s career for some years, as she hails from the town where I live, I wondered if Graceland referred to that ‘Graceland’. Roberts’s previous novels have had varied settings: her last novel, Mother Island (reviewed here with an interview here) was a tale of child abduction tore apart family relationships; her one before that, My Policeman, featured a love triangle set in 1950s Brighton. Her strength is in depicting close relationships and almost forensically examining all the stresses and strains that exist within them, whilst always retaining the reader’s empathy for her main characters.

I’d been expecting a fictional take on Elvis seen through those who worked with and for him – as in Louisa Hall’s recently published take on Oppenheimer in her book Trinity perhaps. I never thought that Roberts would apply these skills to the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ himself. However, in every relationship there are at least two people – who would be other(s) be? 

Wisely, Roberts has gone back to the beginning, and Graceland charts a mother’s love for her only surviving son, and her son’s total devotion to his Mama. You probably know that Elvis had an older twin brother, Jesse, who was stillborn. Neither Gladys nor Elvis ever forget Jesse; Elvis talks to him all the time letting him know how he’s doing, talking out his problems, always being thankful for having had a brother for thirty-five minutes at all.

We begin though in December 1957, when the Chairman of the Draft Board arrives at Graceland with a letter for Elvis – who is still asleep. Gladys manages to dismiss him, knowing the bad news will be better given by her:

Gladys sits on the bed and watches her son. His breathing is stead and deep. He used to sleep badly and dream so hard that he’d walk from his bed, into the night, but you’d never know that to look at him now. On the nightstand is a half-full glass of water, a bible, and a bottle of pills.

Then we turn back the clock to 1937, we’re in Tupelo where Elvis was born. He’s three, and his mama is visiting his father in the jailhouse. They’re poor, forced to move from house to house, reliant on handouts from friends and relatives. But one constant in their lives is the Assembly of God Pentecostal Church where Elvis grew up on gospel music. It was when they moved to Memphis for his father Vernon to find work in 1948 that Elvis began to really sing and learn guitar at high school – all by ear.

By the time Elvis is seventeen, he’s becoming very aware of himself. He’s a bit of a loner at school but the girls are beginning to pay him attention. This is when he changes his hair, trying out a Tony Curtis style pompadour held up with rose oil and Vaseline. Later his mother will perm it for him! 

She works her way around his scalp, combing, lotioning, winding.

‘You think I oughta dye it black?’ Elvis asks, studying his reflection. ‘All the best-looking actors have dark hair….’

At the sound of the key in the lock, they exchange a glance.

‘Thought he was working late,’ says Elvis.

‘What’s that goddamned stink?’ shouts Vernon.

Elvis rises from his chair, but Gladys pushes him down.

‘Daddy can’t see me like this,’ he hisses.

‘Too late,’ says Gladys. […]

‘Can a man expect supper round here any time soon? Or is this here beauty parlour keeping you too busy?’

Roberts captures this transformation perfectly, from the reaction of the school jocks who don’t like it, to Betty from upstairs who does.

The two time-lines continue to alternate throughout the novel, in the earlier one Elvis grows up and gets his first successes with Sam Phillips at Sun Records, through the arrival of Colonel Tom Parker, getting signed to RCA, going off to Hollywood and not forgetting moving to Graceland. It gradually catches up with the other timeline, which is more compressed. It covers a period of around eight months: from the arrival of his draft notice through Elvis joining up and going off to basic training until his mother gets seriously ill. She was just 46 when she died.

Elvis’s relationship with his father was close enough too, but that between him and Gladys was in a whole different league. She lived for her son and brought him up to be a good boy. There is a striking contrast between the Elvis that knows how to make the girls swoon on stage with a wiggle of his hips, and the polite and shy young man behind the scenes.

Roberts always sets Elvis’s career in context, she doesn’t overdo the biographical detail although she has done her research. She keeps the business of the novel primarily to imagining his family life and this makes Graceland a truly gripping read. By the end of the book I felt I knew Gladys well and had rather fallen for the beautiful young Elvis, who is beginning to be troubled by his fame and fortune and the prospect of being forgotten when in the US Army.

But why Elvis? Blame her parents!  Bethan’s mother kept Elvis scrapbooks and annuals, and Elvis was always playing chez Roberts as she was growing up. You couldn’t ask for a better hero to write about, and Bethan Roberts’s portrait of the man on the cusp of becoming a world icon is tender and insightful. I loved this book and recommend it whether you’re an Elvis fan or not.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny Editors and isn’t averse to a bit of Elvis either!

Bethan Roberts, Graceland (Chatto & Windus, 2019) ISBN 9781784742485, hardback, 423 pages.

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