In this winning entry from the 2015 Dundee International Book prize, our hero, Paul, cycles through London streets made dangerous by loose cobbles, trams and steaming piles of horse manure. This farm boy from the highlands of Scotland, soon to be a cycling superhero, must steer himself safely through dangerous times, fuelled by cocaine and amphetamines, sarsaparilla and his love of a not very good woman.
There are three love affairs at the novel’s heart. First is the love of cycling, detailed in the alterations Paul makes to his bicycle. Paul “laughs at his own silliness for treating the bike like a pet as he strokes the saddle…. the shape, perfectly formed, a mould of his own hard working buttocks.” Silas, Paul’s landlord and racing manager, is overseen by Mr Morton. Corpulent and corrupt in his white suit, Mr Morton is reminiscent of Sydney Greenstreet in “Casablanca”, gleaming in real and metaphorical darkness. Silas loves Paul for his physicality and for his decency. His desire for Paul is palpable. After a race where Paul has overdone the drugs that are necessary for his success, Silas bathes him. “My hand,” he says, “is a five-legged crab, crawling over freckled sand.” The final love story is Paul and Miriam’s. Details of this female gangster’s difficult past are revealed through rhyming couplets she records in a notebook and asks Paul to read out.
The youngest with scars and a gun
Discharged early and alone
broke her like a dog a bone.
It’s a clever, literary device, slowly building into a reflection on her character:
Two sides compete in me for space,
Violence and deceit, beauty and grace.
Paul’s innate goodness and naivety are exploited by Silas and Mr Morton. This is necessary for the plot but is stretched to a point where the reader’s credulity is severely tested with Paul appearing not to notice obvious cruelty and serious criminality.
Research is mostly used well. The drink, “Bibi”, a Lithium based lemonade sold over the counter to calm people down, is a fantastic example. The prominent use of a duvet in a scene where Paul prepares his bizarre lodgings for Miriam’s seduction, thirty years before the introduction of duvets to the United Kingdom by Terence Conran, is a rare step from grace.
Both the novel and the author are let down by poor typesetting and design. The cover uses an appropriate lettering style for those interwar years but is coloured in such close hues of orange no one element has prominence. On a bookseller’s display it would disappear. Some of the chapters run into one another without separation, compressing the text. There are uncorrected grammatical errors. These flaws might be caused by that prizewinning process, the editing and production process an attenuated one for Cathcart Froden and Freight publishing. These reservations are minor. There is some beautiful writing here. After taking ethanol Paul “feels cleaned out, hollowed out like an egg ready for display.”
Drunkenness and drugged states, both Silas’s and Pauls, are well described. “My eyesight has improved to the point where I can spot gravy stains on peoples’ neck ties from miles away and wood lice in the crowns of trees lining the streets,” says Silas. Paul “puts his head against a cool lamppost, revelling in the sensation of something in the world standing still.” “He walks on foal’s legs until his head clears.”
Cathcart Froden’s writing style is distinctive. Regular use of very short sentences is interspersed with longer, dialogue based set pieces. The rhythms created conjure up the soundscape of a silent movie score and the story is revealed at a cracking pace. The closing part of the narrative and its playfulness with structure is clever and written with vigour and verve. Cathcart Froden also has the confidence to not tie things up with a neat bow.