Runaway by Peter May

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Reviewed by Harriet

I left a note for my folks on my pillow. I can’t remember now exactly what it was I wrote. Something stupid, about going in search of fame and fortune, and that they shouldn’t worry. We were all going, so we’d be fine. Safety in numbers.

Peter May is an extremely prolific and hardworking novelist, whose trajectory should give encouragement to any writer who has yet to have a major success. After a starting his career writing television drama, he began publishing crime novels, which gained a good deal of respect for their authenticity and accurate research. But he completely failed to find a UK publisher for The Blackhouse, the first volume of what is now known as ‘The Lewis Trilogy’. The novel was finally published in 2009 in France, May’s adopted country, where it won major prizes. It was then taken up by Quercus, who brought it out in 2011. The trilogy has now sold over a million copies in the UK alone, and was followed by the prizewinning Entry Island (reviewed in SNB 3 – click here).

May’s latest novel Runaway follows a pattern that he seems to favour: that of a double narrative, taking place in two different time-frames. Here we swing between 1965 and 2015. Both stories start in Glasgow, follow a highly eventful road trip, and end up in London. And both stories concern the same group of people – teenagers in the 60s, old men in the present day. The main protagonist is Jack, who narrates the 1965 chapters and appears in the third person in the present day sections.

In 1965, Jack is seventeen. He and his friends have formed a band, and after he gets expelled from school he manages to persuade the other members to run away with him to London. How hard can it be to get a recording contract and hit the big time? That’s the thinking, anyway, and of course it turns out to be about as wide of the mark as it could be. Even the journey is fraught with just about every mishap imaginable, and when the boys arrive in London, all doors seem to be shut in their faces. Things change, though not exactly for the better, when they are taken up by the mysterious Dr Robert who feeds them with LSD and introduces them to a (very) alternative psychologist, JP Walker. JP runs a radical experimental group where mental patients live together with their carers in a terrifyingly strange household, into which the band gets absorbed, with predictably disastrous results.

In 2015, Jack is sixty-seven. His life has been one of mediocrity – his job was boring, he’s a widower but anyway his marriage always felt like second best, and he doesn’t get on with his only son. So when he is summoned to the bedside of his dying ex-band-mate Maurie, who proposes a return trip to London to put right a great wrong that was done all those years ago, Jack reluctantly agrees, and manages to persuade his extremely unwilling grandson to drive them down. The three old men (another band member, alcoholic Dave comes along as well) have a journey at least as fraught as the one fifty years ago, but they do finally reach their goal and long ago secrets are revealed, one of which promises to change the remainder of Jack’s life wonderfully for the better.

May is justly celebrated for the thoroughness and accuracy of his historical research, and he has done 1965 London proud here. There are some great moments, like when the boys briefly meet someone who may or may not be John Lennon in an agent’s office, or when they run across some people filming in an alleyway, featuring a skinny young man holding up cards with words written on them, which turns out to be the video for Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues. As for JP Walker and his Victoria Project, this is obviously based on the more or less identical experiment run by the psychologist RD Laing. Fact and fiction are nicely intertwined here, and all this makes for enjoyable reading.

But this novel is billed as a crime thriller, and you may be wondering where the crime element comes in. Well, the book starts with a murder, though the identity of both the killer and his victim are concealed from us until almost the end. In fact it is this crime, and a related one, which preceded it by fifty years, which are the driving force behind Maurie’s decision to persuade Jack to go to London. But Jack doesn’t know this, and the reader may well have more or less forgotten about that rather mysterious opening chapter until all is finally revealed a few pages before the novel ends. Does this matter? Not one bit. The enjoyment of the novel comes from the juxtaposition of past and present, the characters and the way they have changed and developed over the fifty-year period, and the adventures they have in both time-frames. There’s comedy here, and excitement, and some pulling of the heartstrings. May explores the crazy optimism of adolescence and the perils and anxieties of aging with equal sensitivity. It’s quite a different sort of novel from May’s recent work, but none the worse for that.

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Harriet Devine is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and interviewed Peter May HERE.

Peter May, Runaway (Quercus: London, 2015). 9781780874555, 424 pp., hardback.

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