There are a few things about debut novels that could make for interesting reading. Firstly, you know very little about the author, their style, there is often no reference point or previous body of work to turn to get a feel for whether you might like the book – basically, you don’t know what you are getting. You’ve got the publisher’s blurb to work with, but not much else. At the same time, you could be about to embark on an exciting adventure with a fresh new voice; you might be about to stumble upon a gem.
So I approached this book with a mixture of excitement and leaping into the unknown. The write-up on the back cover interested me though; the story of friendship and redemption set in a Northern town, sounded right up my street! And it was right up my street, I shouldn’t have had any concerns as I have really enjoyed my journey with this fresh new voice; I feel like I have found a gem!
Jim is the brightest lad in his group of mates, studious and conscientious, he worries about his imminent GSCE exams but he has time to enjoy the summer sunshine with his friends, swigging tins of beer by a local stream. One moment is all it takes to change the course of Jim’s life. Years later, he returns to his home town. He is an outsider now with no family, shouldering the burden of disappointing his father and maybe being the cause of his death. His friends have moved on, but he isn’t able to and he’s not like them anyway. He drifts along not fulfilling that early potential and putting up with a lot of rubbish from his mates Barry and Geoff, but especially Barry. Jim soon falls into the routine of labouring on building sites and then drinking too much at the local pub or at home on his own.
The only thing that makes him feel normal, good about himself and gives him a sense of perspective is his friendship with Joe. Joe is in his fifties and has learning difficulties, he lives with his mother, who is too proud to ask for assistance, but knows she is dying. Jim fills his spare time helping the two of them, like his father did before him, by doing odd jobs around their house. This could be Jim’s salvation, the work is a way of making amends for opportunities lost. But he also genuinely loves Joe, he’s like family. But this is a small town, where small-mindedness can lead to big trouble especially when fuelled by misinformation and revenge. With one violent death already in his past, Jim is determined to prevent another if he can. We know he doesn’t manage it because the writer tells us as much on the opening page.
The structure of this book is interesting. Wheatley tells us the tragic outcome at the start and then proceeds to tell us how the characters get to that sad end. The book moves back and forward in time before settling in 2004 so we can witness how relationships develop and break down leading to bitterness and recrimination, and despite knowing what ultimately happens I cared about how the characters got there. Jim is our main narrator, but James Wheatley also uses 3rd person narrative to fill the blanks that Jim can’t. I wasn’t sure about the 3rd person at first, compared to Jim it sounded a bit forced, but I soon got used to it and it is essential.
Jim is a classic flawed hero. Lacking drive, not fulfilling his potential, hanging around with people who stifle him, he drinks too much, feels too sorry for himself but he is loyal, hard-working and desperately wants to do the right thing. Jim approaches dealings with Joe with a mix of frustration, humour and sensitivity which makes the relationship completely believable. Joe’s innocence and bravery when faced with so much violence makes Jim brave enough to finally make a difference and move on.
This book is about what friendship really means, loyalty and standing up for what is right. James Wheatley has approached it with feeling, humour, deftness and a lightness of touch. It is hard-hitting, but you never feel he wants to smack you round the head with his writing. It is well thought through and put together, there is no part that feels flabby or superfluous. Magnificent Joe is a great debut and I look forward to reading more from James Wheatley. If this book is anything to go by I think he will have a bright future.
Magnificent Joe is published today by OneWorld Publications who kindly sent me a review copy. I asked James if he would answer some questions about his background, the writing process and his book. He very graciously agreed and I will post his answers tomorrow, please check back!