‘A skilfully crafted novel’ – If This Is Home by Stuart Evers

Mark Wilkinson is on the run:  from his estranged mother, his broken father and his life in the north of England.  He arrives in New York as Joe Novak with his notebook detailing the history of the man he has become.  Now though Joe, together with his friends O’Neil and Edith, sells dreams at the mysterious Valhalla, an apartment complex in Las Vegas, full of casinos and restaurants so dark the guests eat as though they are blind.  However, no matter how far Joe runs, the past is never far away and after one disastrous night at the Valhalla, he can ignore it no longer.  He runs again, but this time it’s back to England and back to his old love, Bethany Wilder, a one time carnival queen.  As they accompany each other through the wreckage of his past, will Joe find what he is looking for?  Will Mark finally return home?

This accomplished debut novel (Evers previous book, a collection of short stories, Ten Stories About Smoking, won the 2011 London Book Award) explores how we define ourselves by our past; whether it is ever possible to reinvent yourself and what it really means to ‘come home’.

Initially, I found the book hard to slip into.  It seemed that the essential descriptions necessary to introduce the reader to the characters and their setting where left out, probably in order to up the pace.  The effect, however, was to leave this reader wondering what on earth was going on.  This felt particularly true of Joe’s activities and function in relation to the Valhalla.  It isn’t until later in the story that the reader realises that Joe is just an estate agent selling what appears to be a rather sordid dream.

But any reservations I had at the beginning faded quickly and soon I was completely hooked.  Told in the main from Joe’s point of view, the story is also interspersed with a third person narrative from Bethany Wilder.  In other books, I’ve found the switch between first and third person point of view unnecessarily unsettling, but Evers has managed this extremely well and his capturing of the female voice is convincing.  Bethany is a character far more comfortable in jeans and Doc Martens, but is nevertheless persuaded to be carnival queen.  I loved the description of her in her dress for the first time:

“She approaches them with her hands hitching up her dress.  It makes her feel oddly feminine and weak, almost showy – as though she is preparing to mount a horse side saddle.”

This is a skilfully crafted novel.  About a third of the way through Joe’s past starts to intrude into the present so severely it seems as though he’s suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.  Evers portrays this by inserting flashbacks into the present time narrative and does this so believably that the effect is shocking.  When the reversal comes, Evers mastery over his timing and plot is clearly demonstrated as the revelation is unexpected and savage.

Evers has a keen eye for human behaviour and I imagine him as a writer who spends a great deal of time sitting unnoticed watching people:

“My friend O’Neil says that one of the most important things to realise in conversation is that everyone’s always thinking what they’re going to say next.  Which means if you’re properly listening you’ll understand what people are really saying, what they actually want you to know.”

You can tell that Evers is that someone who’s always listening, always understanding the whole picture.

Joe’s discomfiture about the differences he sees when he finally returns home is a poignant illustration of how we can never truly return to the past we’ve left behind.  Life is always on the move.  The clash between Joe’s memories of home and his life as Mark, and the reality he finds back in England is brutal, but Joe has to come to terms with his past if he is to have a future.

Any Cop?: Yes, I really couldn’t put it down.  The stains on the cover where I’ve read and cooked at the same time are a testament to that.

Julie Fisher

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