Reviewed by Annabel
Do you remember how the wonderful TV series Six Feet Under began? In the opening scene, one of the key characters, Nathaniel Fisher Sr., is run over by a bus. His oldest son has to return from living far away, and his youngest carries on the family funeral business. Their dead father appears to them to help them through the tough times to come.
The Last of the Bowmans pays homage to that, but in a very British way. Also, a black comedy, it opens with Lyle Bowman’s death through accidental poisoning – drinking a jar of white spirit by mistake.
We’re then introduced to long-suffering Billy and his wife Jean. They had met at a charity gala.
Jean dismissed his idea that her attendance at the gala was an act of selflessness. ‘Cancer affects us all, Billy – not just poor people,’ she told him. ‘It’s affected me.’
‘I’m… I’m so sorry to hear that,’ Billy stammered, unsure if she herself or a close family member had suffered the disease. ‘Would you like to talk about it?’
Jean drained the contents of her glass and Billy prepared himself for the worst.
‘I read an article in Reader’s Digest, Billy,’ Jean said, her voice faltering. ‘It was about a young woman in her twenties – my age – who died of the disease. It was the most moving and upsetting story I’d ever read and I cried for days afterwards. Mummy became quite concerned about me.’
Jean then refilled her wine glass and cut herself a large piece of cheese.
It wasn’t quite the story Billy had been expecting, but he was again struck by the sensitivity Jean exuded. Mentally, he placed another tick in her humanitarian box. What a stroke of good fortune it was to have been seated next to her!
‘My own mother died of a thrombosis,’ he said.
‘I’m very sorry to hear that, Billy, but let’s face it: she didn’t die from cancer, did she?’
This extended quote gives you a flavour of the black humour that laces through this novel. Jean is a bit of a monster – and you can guess that she and Billy’s younger brother Greg don’t get on – especially after he, high on magic mushrooms at their wedding, shouted ‘JEAN’S A VAMPIRE’ at the impediment question.
The funeral doesn’t quite go without a hitch either – Greg nearly misses it – just as well he didn’t arrive in time to see Billie’s daughter Katy perform ‘her grandfather’s favourite song’ – Hit me baby one more time. Instead he makes a bit of an entrance:
Katy was the first to turn and see the man. He was tall and suntanned, with long blonde hair swept back from his eyes and wearing Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. She nudged her father. ‘What’s that surfer man doing here?’
Billy turned and smiled. ‘That’s your Uncle Greg, Katy. I told you he’d be here!’
It was the first time the two brothers had seen each other in seven years.
They had managed to divert Greg’s luggage to Iceland on his flight back from the USA, where he teaches in a university. Jean is overjoyed that he’ll lodge with them until his suitcase turns up! There’s one other main character to introduce – Uncle Frank. Lyle’s brother, a bachelor and rather un-PC-talking man who frequently upsets others when he opens his mouth. Eventually, Greg is able to move into his father’s house to start clearing it and getting it ready to sell. He sits down in his dad’s armchair and notices there’s no television:
Greg felt slight panicked. ‘How the hell am I supposed to entertain myself?’ he wondered out loud.
‘I’ll talk to you son,’ a voice said.
‘It’s me, kid, your old Dad,’ Lyle said. ‘Turn around and let me take a look at you.’
Lyle is in limbo for twenty days until the paperwork for him to enter the afterlife is sorted out. He can appear to one person only for short periods of time. He charges Greg with fixing his family before he goes.
Getting to work, Greg discovers his brother is fixated by a woman with no feet, is suspended from work and has not told his wife about it; Uncle Frank is planning to rob a bank to finance going to Montana to be a cowboy. In helping them both, Greg will discover a big secret from the past that affects him as well. Can Greg solve all this family’s problems before his father’s ghost goes off and he has to fly back to the USA? He’s going to have a bloody good try!
Henderson gradually teases out all the back-stories in the relationships between the brothers, their rather aloof father, their beloved mum who died too early and the ever-present Uncle Frank. The main characters all have a depth to them which takes us along with them on the emotional roller-coaster of life. One minute we’re laughing as Uncle Frank says something outrageous, the next we’re worried about how Billy can keep his situation from Jean. Squashing the action into just one month gives an urgency to Greg’s task of fixing them all.
Betty and Jean provide some good comic scenes. Betty, being the daughter of a tripe-seller, had married up – becoming the wife of a chiropodist. Uncle Frank loves to remind her of their lowly origins much to Jean’s disgust. Billy, having failed as an accountant, is now a book salesman – Jean says he’s ‘in publishing’, but it’s clear she’s disappointed in her husband’s inability to raise them up the social ladder. No wonder Billy has problems.
The black comedy mixed with a bittersweet and compassionate drama frequently reminded me of the late, great David Nobbs in style. There was much to enjoy in this novel, and you may be interested to know that Henderson’s first book, Last Bus to Coffeeville has been selected for World Book Night 2016.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
J Paul Henderson has written an article for our BookBuzz section on the black humour in this novel – click here.
J. Paul Henderson, The Last of the Bowmans (No Exit Press, 2016). 978-1843442776, 288pp., paperback original.
BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)