I have a confession to make: Karen Carpenter haunts my dreams. (The most bizarre one involved her meeting me at a summer fȇte and asking me to play her in a biopic.) That mournful voice, as melancholic as the sight of snow, those velvet-brown eyes, that frail figure resulting from the illness which she never mentioned – who wouldn’t be haunted?
So imagine my delight when I received The Confusion of Karen Carpenter, the new novel by Jonathan Harvey. In case you are hoping that the novel dramatises the life of the troubled Seventies singer, you will nonetheless not be disappointed that it does not. For Harvey has written a stunningly funny book, full of rollercoaster twists and soapworthy characters.
Our eponymous Karen Carpenter is, in actual fact, a secondary school teacher in her thirties. When we encounter her at the start of the novel, her partner of eleven years has just left her, and she has no idea why. Perhaps this is why, rather romantically, she keeps talking to him, and sees him everywhere. Rather less romantically, she also needs someone to pay the mortgage. Being suddenly single, then, is less important than getting her Borgen-obsessed, Zumba’ing mother out of her house and a paying housemate in.
Initially, Harvey’s laugh a minute prose grated, and there was definitely the sense that, this being only his second book, he was still making the adjustment from writing for television to writing novels. And whilst The Confusion of Karen Carpenter is certainly an excellent title, I’m not sure if giving his heroine the same name as the Carpenters singer really added anything to the story, other than a few obvious anecdotes. But you get used to the jokes, and the sheer originality of all his characters really showcases his dramatic talents. I became particularly fond of Meredith the needy lesbian, and decided I might even be partial to a slice of Mungo and Fionnula’s spinach pie (although I wouldn’t engage with any other aspect of their lifestyle, ahem).
Any Cop?: Although one plot strand is left annoyingly neglected, the main ‘Confusion’ of the novel, when it is finally revealed, will leave you firstly open-mouthed, and then reaching for the Kleenex.