A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
To the girls who come to make it big in the ‘What the Butler Saw’ movie industry, Aberystwyth is the town of broken dreams. To Dean Morgan who teaches at the Faculty of Undertaking, it is just a place to get course materials. But both worlds collide when the Dean checks into the notorious bed and breakfast ghetto – a dark labyrinth of Druid speakeasies and toffee-apple dens – and receives a suitcase intended for a ruthless Druid assassin. Suddenly he is running for his life, his heart hopelessly in thrall to a porn star known as Judy Juice. Once again, Louie Knight, the town’s only private eye, steps into the moral netherworld to make sense of it all. He knows that in order to find the Dean, he has to discover what was in the Druid’s case. It turns out to be something so evil it makes even the hard-boiled gumshoe gasp …
I have to say that I came to a point in my life during the late Spring where I simply couldn’t face any more grim fiction, no matter how great and worthwhile it was, and I made a vow to have a season of Happy Reads. If only to save me from the vast slough of despond threatening to drown me entirely. At the end of the season, I will have to see if it’s worked and if books can indeed give you mornings of joy for evenings of tearfulness as the old hymn has it (warning: there is music on this link). Time will tell.
This then is the first of my Happy Reads pile. I was rather looking forward to this one too, especially as it seemed to plough a similar furrow to Jasper Fforde, whose first three books of the Thursday Next series I thoroughly enjoyed – until Ms Next lost her pizzazz, to my mind. On top of this, my husband had in fact already read Last Tango to Aberystwyth and muttered quietly when I asked him what he thought. It was certainly a very different reviewing experience being able to discuss a book with one’s loved one, as our reading habits don’t usually coincide at all.
Anyway, I suspect my reading pleasure might have been altered by the fact that Last Tango is the second in a series, so I had no idea about any of the characters or what their relationships with each other were. I may well have written a different review if I’d read the first novel, but actually I suspect not. And, in any case, an author ought to be able to pull people into a story, no matter where it appears on the literary journey, so I’m really not prepared to make many allowances.
Still, the first line is nice, even though I really hate wasps:
I needed to find a druid, which in Aberystwyth is like trying to find a wasp at a picnic.
I think the trouble is that the author just isn’t prepared to build up character or interconnections between characters and make the reader care. Or not enough, and not for this reader, or in fact her husband. Pryce relies heavily on the amusement and the zany factors of his story to build up interest. He’s quite good at it too, it has to be said; there are lots of lovely one-liners and quirky scenarios that do bring a smile to the lips. Who could resist this:
When I regained consciousness I was lying at the base of Constitution Hill, a cold tongue of sea-water licking my face like a faithful dog.
Calamity, eyes bleary with sleep, yawned like a small hippo.
I also couldn’t help but enjoy the scene where the local women fight each other verbally to win points for best gossip and Louie plays them for information by pretending not to care. It’s utterly inspired. The problem is that the book as a whole is all too disjointed. Perhaps it’s simply the way I prefer to take my comedy? If I can make the analogy, I’m more of a Hugh Dennis fan, as what makes me laugh and laugh deeply is the building up of a comic story to a great and witty conclusion, something Dennis does with style. I’m not a fan of Stewart Francis who simply throws out a raft of unconnected one-line witticisms until someone laughs. Last Tango is very much like this latter version of comedy, and I therefore didn’t warm to it. Others may well feel differently.
There is a plot however. I swear I could see it in there somewhere. It just kept eluding me and, by the end, I was simply flicking the pages in order to get a vague idea of how it would all pan out. There were also a couple of scenes where I do feel Pryce might have gone over the top, even in a surreal comic novel such as this, and I didn’t believe what was happening. The instance of the main character’s missing girlfriend being apparently turned into a machine, for one, stretched the bounds of credibility to breaking point.
Neither do I think that the layout of the book does the story any favours. My copy is set out in blocks of text with gaps in between even when no change of scene has taken place. It was all rather unsettling, although I suppose in that respect it does tie in with my one-liner comedian theory.
There are an awful lot of characters too, and I didn’t really understand what they were all doing, or why they might be important. I’m sure, however – before the countless fans of this author begin to beat me to a pulp for what I’ve written so far – that there’s a viable story in a viable world in the book, but to be honest the author didn’t sell it to me well enough. It was therefore really rather depressing and immensely frustrating as a read, and I found myself being more and more reluctant to carry on reading at all – never a positive sign and even grimmer in terms of my Happy Reads focus …
So my conclusion is that if you want a quirky comic novel set in a surreal world, you’re best off with the first three Jasper Fforde novels instead. Because, in my final analysis, Fforde simply does it better.
Happy Read quota: 2 out of 10. Not a hugely auspicious start to my season then, but I’m hoping for better things, please God.
Last Tango in Aberystwyth, Bloomsbury 2004, ISBN 0-7475-6676-3
[Anne is anticipating a season filled with happy reads in order to improve her mental state. If you can recommend any happy reads which aren’t (please!) your own work, please leave a comment. In the meantime, you can wallow in her own on-the-whole misery-soaked fiction here.]