“His best since The Stars in the Bright Sky” – Kitchenly 434 by Alan Warner

It’s the late 1970s, and Stafford boy Crofton Clark is in proud residence at Kitchenly Mill Race, Suffolk, a massive country pile belonging to his old mate, Mark Morrell – aka Marko, lead guitarist of legendary rock band, Fear Taker. Crofton and Marko go way back; they shared a flat in the good old days, and now while Marko’s off touring the world, Crofton (‘The Help’) stays behind to keep an eye on the running of the estate.

That’s the set-up for Warner’s ninth novel; what we get, then, is Crofton’s account of several days in his life at Kitchenly, including his extensive commentary on the provenance of the estate itself, the various issues he’s got with his fellow staff members (not to mention Marko’s wife, Auralie), the inside scoop on Fear Taker (amongst other rock legends), and his, well, interesting interactions with the local villagers. What starts as a low-key observational account of the neighbourhood and the architectural history of the big house itself becomes an account of the unravelling of Crofton’s cosy life at Kitchenly – as compelling and painful to follow as any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm.

In terms of setting and context, Kitchenly 434 reads like the lovechild of The Remains of the Day and This Is Memorial Device: picture Stevens, long-haired, glued to The Old Grey Whistle Test when he’s not sneaking his boss’s Ferrari Dino out for an illicit test-drive, determined to jam anecdotes about The Syndicats or The Who into each and every conversation, torn between rage at the decline of classic rock and secret admiration for Gary Numan. Both of the worlds occupied by Crofton – the stately home and the rock’n’roll industry – are, by the time he’s talking about, heavily constructed around nostalgia, or the sentimentalised preservation of a life that’s no longer real; what better setting then, for Crofton himself, whose sense of his own importance in both contexts is, well, somewhat fantastical itself.

Beyond the specifics of the plot itself, this is, obviously, an Alan Warner novel, and it’s got all the strengths of his best work in terms of characterisation and – in particular – dialogue. Crofton’s musings are solidly entertaining, but where the work really comes to life is when he’s forced into a social situation, whether it’s with the housekeeper, Mrs H; the local girls, Rose and Nat, who call round looking for Marko’s autograph; Nat’s poor mum, Abigail, who gets to suffer through a meal with a drunken Crofton; or Marko himself – who is, incidentally, a brilliant send-up of the Thatcherite artist, hoarding his wealth against the evils of taxation. Crofton’s awkward, confused, and yet supremely assertive diatribes work in hilarious counterpoint to pretty much everyone he encounters – his bewilderment when his doctor doesn’t know where he lives; his horrified amazement when Abigail remains clueless and uninterested in the likes of Phil Spector; his futile attempts to impress New Wave fanatic, Nat, with Marko’s guitar collection. Nat herself is a throwback to The Sopranos, as once again, Warner proves himself to be a redoubtable ventriloquist when it comes to fifteen-year-old girls. Where the text seems like it might be spiralling towards predictability – Crofton’s interest in Nat; his ‘borrowing’ of the Ferrari – Warner surprises us at each turn, and some of the set-pieces here, most notably the dinner with Abigail and, earlier, Crofton’s misguided visit to the sheep-shearing barber, are, in their excruciating humour, the most memorably scenes we’ve read in a long time.

Any Cop?: It’s slow to get going but absolutely worth the effort – his best since The Stars in the Bright Sky.

 

Valerie O’Riordan

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