12 Dec 2014

Southsiders by Nigel Bird

Southsiders by Nigel Bird published by Blasted Heath
Published by Blasted Heath

Southsiders by Nigel Bird, published by Blasted Heath, is a short novel of brutal absolutes as its twelve-year-old hero attempts to survive in the absence of his warring parents.

Although Southsiders gets off to a slow start, the occasional oddities of the characters keep you going until you find your feet.  

Having not even read the blurb of Southsiders, and having purchased it because of a recomendation, it took me a little while to establish what might be happening.  It is not therefore a straight-up genre novel of any stamp, and that's a good thing.

You may read the blurb so you'll have a better idea, but Southsiders may be best described as a family drama. You could maybe even style Southsiders as a thoroughly black reading of High Fidelity, but it's its own book, and its drives the reader on largely due to the ingenuity of its young lead.

The vinyl records in Southsiders are important, and not purely as material items, although their cash value does become a decisive factor.  Nigel Bird is possibly a viyl junkie himself, given the love he lavishes on the black discs included, but the records are a fond locus for the young hero in which he can consider his love for his father.  There is a point in the book where the son has to sell these records, and this scene is unerringly portrayed as the 12 year old attempts to fathom the peculiarities of the antique trade.

Cutting back and fore between father and son, Southsiders carefully overlays differing versions of events as it shades in the truth, showing us a sadder and more frightening image of a collapsed family.  The mother of the story, Paula, is not someone we get to know well at all, and I can't decide if that is a shame or not.

In one sense Paula is a horror of a woman, simply one of the worst characters you will meet in any book, irredemiably foul, mad, bad and drunk.  In any other book this might make her the lead, or at least a more compelling characer, but in Southsiders, caring as you do for the father son relationship, you want to be well rid of her.

The Kindle is particularly well suited for the shorter novel, at least in my experience.  Skeletons come crashing out of the closet, and do so with a musical accompaniment; at least it appears that author Nigel Bird always has one ear on the record collection, which is referenced thoroughly throughout Southsiders. There are enough strange twists to hold the attention, and the book's portrait of a family in crisis is painful in the extremes.  The mental life of the book's twelve year old hero Jesse, is striking and it's his thoughts and explorations of adult life that keep the reader on their toes.

His quiff had slumped onto his forehead as if someone had shot it.  He opened the tin of his dad's gel, dipped his fingers in to dig out a good blob of grease and rubbed it into his hair.  With a comb and loving care, he resurrected things so he looked just like Presley in King Creole.  He was too young to be able to smoulder like the King, but people said he'd grow into it.  Dad, especially.

In effect then, we have the story of a boy having to mature fast due to the sudden disappearance of both parents, and while he dines heavily on spaghetti hoops and Pot Noodles, there is also the large matter of the rent to pay, something that causes him to get involved in an abortive mugging; another strong episode.

Southsiders is a short novel, and its lead characters are so engrossing that it can't support many extraneous players, but the three that are crucial to the plot, the child, the father and to a lesser extent the mother, are not all of them nice, generic middle-class types, and retain their substance when you finish the book.

Southsiders is defintiely a book that is going to travel by word of mouth however, and it deserves to.  I say this because it isn't a crime thriller, and calling it a family drama does it no justice whatsoever.  At one moment, the pages turn as if it were a taut, issue-driven novel, but when it ventures into the mind of its twelve year old lead, it behaves like a Roddy Doyle-style response to the issues at the heart of childhood.

Here is some word of blog then: you should definitely read Southsiders by Nigel Bird.  It is engrossing and entertaining and not in any way a run of the mill production.  Something quite unique in many ways, and a fond portrayal of early adulthood.