Saturday, 20 November 2004

Salley Vickers: Mr Golightly's Holiday (2003)

Edition: Harper Perennial, 2004
Review number: 1274

There have been many novels written about the way in which the settled life of a British village can be transformed by the introduction of new ideas by cosmopolitan visitors. It might be thought that the advent of modern communications and media, particularly the TV soap opera, would have made this an obsolete concept, one that would be restricted to literature with a historical setting, but Mr Golightly's Holiday demonstrates that a successful contemporary novel can still use the theme.

The village in question is a fictional place on the edge of Dartmoor, and the cosmopolitan visitor is the title character (though he is in some ways less sophisticated than the villagers). He is a middle-aged businessman who books a holiday cottage for several months to take some time away from the company he runs and to think about bringing a successful novel he wrote some years ago up to date, maybe by turning it into the basis for a soap opera. This is where his own lack of sophistication comes in; he needs educating about how a soap opera works by a teenager he befriends. However, he certainly challenges the villagers' assumptions about how they run their lives, which is the point of the scenario.

The reviews quoted on the back of Mr Golightly's Holiday generally seem keen to compare it to Cold Comfort Farm. To my mind, there are two many differences between the two novels to make this a useful comparison for a prospective reader (though, from a marketing point of view, it is easy to see why the publishers would quote comparisons to one of the best loved English novels of the twentieth century). The village here is not as strange and over the top as the farm at Cold Comfort, for one thing, and Mr Golightly is nothing like as forthright in his attempts at reform as Flora Poste. These two factors combine to produce a much gentler novel, rather than the madcap satire of Gibbons. I would say that a closer relation is Mervyn Peake's Mr Pye, even if that is a far less well known novel.

This brings me to a major point of similarity between Mr Golightly's Holiday and Mr Pye, the part that religious ideas play in both novels. (This is another important difference between them and Cold Comfort Farm, where the only important religious theme is the description of the Quivering Brethren, ridiculing the more extreme non-conformist sects.) That there will be Christian ideas appearing in the novel is clear early on, when a woman walking her dog on Dartmoor suddenly hears a voice from a burning gorse bush - an incident that rams home just how bizarre Moses' similar experience recorded in Exodus must have seemed when he recounted it to his acquaintances. This particular event is to my mind the most interesting of the ideas in the novel, and even though it could form the basis of an entire plot in itself, it is not made as much of as some of the other Biblical ideas.

There are two Bible-derived ideas which form an important part of the novel. One of these is kept as a well-prepared surprise to the end; it is, unfortunately rather hackneyed and limp (sufficiently so that it forms the setup to several well known jokes). The other is constant reference to the story of Job - Mr Golightly receives a series of anonymous emails quoting one of the most famous pieces of poetry in the Old Testament, from the end of the book when Job confronts God to try to find out why he has been through so much suffering. This, too, is potentially interesting (since after all Job is one of the hardest hitting books in the Bible), but it is also not handled very well. The Biblical Job is an attack on facile reasoning about suffering in which an innocent man looses his family, his property and his health in what seems to be a very nasty and malicious prank on the part of God. Like the burning bush, this is a missed opportunity in a novel which could never be described as hard-hitting. (Robert Heinlein's science fiction retelling of the Biblical story, a novel itself named Job, is far more provocative.)

Though there are missed opportunities, and though Vickers has a distinct tendency to play safe when she has a choice to make, there is still much to enjoy about Mr Golightly's Holiday. It is well enough written, particularly in terms of characterisation, but if it had been more daring it could have been one of the best novels of 2003. Interesting, but could have been better.

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