Am halfway through that unlikeliest of literary beasts -- a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel that’s quite readable (okay, that’s a little unfair I know, but any book lover should have some idea of what I mean). This is Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, a surprisingly low-profile book (last I checked, even Amazon.com had practically nothing on it) about a large family of drunks in 1970s Britain. That’s a very loose description, but I think it captures the gist; the running joke here is that every one of the characters is an alcoholic in one way or the other.
Like I said, the Booker stamp on this novel made me queasy when it was thrown my way for reviewing; but since I was wading unhappily at the time in the turgid prose of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which is tipped to actually win the Booker this year -- that’s even worse than being shortlisted) I welcomed it as respite. This is a whimsical little book that doesn’t start very promisingly (I was distracted by a number of awkward sentences; the fact that my copy is an uncorrected proof could have something to do with it) but draws you into its fold as you go along. The central character is the middle-aged Colette and we are introduced not just to her immediate family -- husband and children, including the perpetually drunk, and dangerous, eldest son Janus -- but a large cast of other characters, including Colette’s siblings and their families. The other major alcoholic in the story is also named Janus -- he is Colette’s recently widowed brother and early on we discover that he has been searching for ways to extract the spirit from a can of shoe polish. (He is still relatively sane at this point but his condition steadily gets worse.)
Woodward for his part extracts humour from what is essentially a very bleak, even unpleasant story. He’s very good at dark humour and this is what’s kept the book alive for me so far. Check this bit, where Colette tells her supercilious sister-in-law how to take care of her inebriated brother:
"The diarrhoea is the worst thing," said Colette, after a pause, "worse than the vomit. That’s the first thing I learned. The second is that Janus Brian tends to neglect his toenails. You need to trim them for him once a fortnight. The third thing is not to be bothered by nakedness. Janus Brian likes to walk around in the nude. If he’s very far gone, he is likely to take hold of your breast. He will eat steamed fish, nothing else. Also, he needs to be talked to, for hours on end, sometimes. Or read to. I’m reading him the complete works of Dickens, but so far we’re still only on Bleak House. You will need to visit him every other day. If you leave it any longer he is likely to die. And he won’t thank you for anything you do for him. Is that enough information for you? Do you think you can cope with that?"