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Blake Morrison: South of the River
Morrison has been around a long time and produced a lot of interesting work but this is only his second novel. It is one of those novels where we follow the stories of several people (who are all interconnected) simultaneously. The action starts the day Tony Blair becomes prime minister and continues to May 2002, five years later. We start with Libby. Libby is a successful advertising executive, mother of two daughters and married to Nat. Nat works part-time teaching creative writing at a local college but is writing the Great Play (and has been doing so for some time). The ones he has written have had little success and his agent has recently dumped him. He is now forty with few prospects. Despite his relative inactivity, his role in looking after his children is fairly limited. In short we are meant to see him as something of a loser. Libby, however, is successful in her career and, during the course of the book, will open her own agency and do well at it.
Of the other key characters (who have their separate chapters, so that you know that they are key) are Jack, Anthea and Harry. Jack is Nat’s uncle. He runs a lawn mower business which is failing because of increased competition from Europe. His wife is very ill and dies during the course of the book. He is right-wing and a master of the fox hounds. Hunting, which the Labour government banned during this period (though not entirely for noble reasons) plays a key role in this book. Anthea is a woman of left-wing views – she works as a tree officer for the local council at the beginning of the book and, by the end, she is in Palestine, helping the Palestinians. She has written a series of stories and sends them to Nat, as a former student of his (though that is later put in doubt) and ends up having an affair with him, which ends his marriage.
Harry is Nat’s friend. He is black and though this is something of an issue it is not a key point. Seventeen years previously he had an affair with Marcia and she had child, Stephen. Harry has had no contact with either mother or son since then but re-established links during the course of the book. As far as we can tell he has had no sexual relations since then though he is attracted to Libby. Harry works as a journalist for the local newspaper. Much of his work is mundane, till he takes on the story of a missing (and presumed murdered) black child. The biological father is arrested but Harry is convinced of his innocence.
The stories of these people – Nat’s marriage, his affair and stumbling career, Libby’s marriage, her affair with a younger man and her successful career, Anthea’s affair with Nat, which seems to bring her little happiness and her own career and activism, Harry’s struggles with suddenly becoming a parent to a seventeen year old boy, his career and his concern for the missing child story and Jack’s dealing with his wife’s death and his failing business – are told against the background of the Blair government. While not overtly critical, Morrison is clearly no great lover of Blair and his government. The story ends before the Iraq War has got going, so it does not appear much in the book.
Besides the Blair government, there is another thread running through the book – that of foxes. Anthea writes a book of stories about foxes, Harry’s investigation of the missing child story (and another story where a child is attacked) leads him to think that foxes are the cause, Jack is concerned with preserving fox hunting and foxes and references to them appear throughout the novel. If they are a symbol – and they certainly are in Anthea’s stories – they are a complex symbol, with different meanings for the different characters. Ultimately, though the book is not about the Blair government, it is about how people changed in Britain during that period and how they adapted (or did not adapt) to a new reality and Morrison tells this story well.
First published 2007 by Chatto and Windus