Brighton Rock

by Graham Greene

Hot on the heels of Travels with my Aunt, which I really enjoyed (8/10), I selected this book from my bookshelf.

A slight aside at this point: though our house remains full of books, I have been fairly drastically reducing my library over the past few years, and controlling what comes in.  I buy new books only rarely, and then I try to buy them from an independent bookseller such as alison’s bookshop and musicroom in Tewkesbury, The Book Shop in Liskeard, Blandford Books in Broadway or Coach House books and art materials in Pershore.  If I’m looking for a specific book, I take a quick look around local charity shops and, if not found, reserve it from the library.  I also buy new books in Kindle format quite often.  The criteria for keeping a book are: might I want to introduce it to my book group? Is there any chance I will read it again? Is this a book I may wish to pass on to someone else (but not immediately)?  If it doesn’t meet any of these criteria, I will usually pass it on or donate it.

Nevertheless, three Graham Greene novels had found their way onto a bookcase.  Perhaps they were from my parents-in-law’s vast library, which we are slowly dismantling and sorting into three groups: British Library, charity shop and ‘keepsies’.

So, to the text itself.  Greene’s writing is so accomplished it looks effortless.  He seems to be able to ‘get inside the head’ of his main character, whom the narrator  calls “the Boy” and whom his fellow gang members call “Pinkie”, as well as Pinkie’s girlfriend, the innocent young waitress, Rose.

Pinkie seems to be a person with – to use a term current today – no moral compass.  His reflections on his upbringing, which the reader is to understand was poor and perhaps squalid, amount to a horror of sex derived from having to witness his parents’ Saturday afternoon couplings (one assumes they were too poor – or unimaginative – to send the young boy to the cinema). Is the reader supposed to empathise with Pinkie at all?  I think not, but the writing is clever in that it encourages you to see the world from Pinkie’s point of view, even though the story is written in the third person.

Rose very definitely does have a moral compass, and her view of the world is shaped by her Catholic upbringing, which she is unable to shake off.  Even after the couple is legally married at a registry office, she is convinced that they have committed a mortal sin by having sex without the sacrament of marriage in a church. Rose will do anything for her man, and until almost the end of the story she seems to have no promptings to act independently even though she can see him for what he is.  She is an extreme example of a woman who is prepared to “stand by her man”.

Greene explores life, death, religion, justice, guilt – as applied to the lives of ordinary people caught up in an underworld.  There is violence and needless murder.  But there are also moments of tenderness.

Perhaps one of the most interesting characters is Ida Parsons, a woman who has come down for the day from London and becomes aware of the circumstances of the first murder in the book, following which she is determined to act as an unofficial detective and bring the murderer to light and to justice.  The tension in the book comes mainly from the way in which she catches up on the gang but always remains one step behind. The reader fears for her life even though she does not appear to do so, despite warnings from others.  It seems that her quest is just another kind of adventure for someone who is, by her own admission, a good time girl.

There is plenty of sex (of a rather sordid variety) in this book written in the 1930s.  It is a subject that Greene does not shy away from, and it makes the book accessible on yet another level.  To have ignored Ida’s pursuing of casual relationships purely for sexual pleasure, or Pinkie’s and Rose’s fear of something of which they are both very ignorant, would have made this a lesser book.

The last Greene on my shelf is The Quiet American.  I plan to read this in due course – and maybe also Our Man in Havana, to set against the John le Carré book The Tailor of Panama.


Travels with my Aunt

by Graham Greene

My book group selected this book.  Though I wasn’t at the meeting when it was chosen, I felt quite excited about reading (or re-reading) this book.  I believe it is the only Greene novel I have ever read – and yet I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I had enjoyed it.

I set about trying to find a copy.  And then the thought occurred to me that if I had already read out, I might still have a copy.  And luckily I do.

It’s a fairly short novel – and I have noticed a trend within the book group to select whichever book is the shortest out of the three or four presented!  But in the case of this book, it packs quite a punch and makes up in density for what it lacks in volume.  I would say it took me as long to read as a longer, lighter book might have done.

So – why do I like the book so much?  More than anything, it is Greene’s style of writing that appeals.  His prose is very well-formed and yet neither heavy nor stuffy. True, the narrator of this tale, writing in the first person, could be said to be a stuffy sort of person.  Henry Pulling is an early-retired bank manager in his fifties, whose life so far has contained nothing more exciting than selecting a new variety of dahlia for his garden or deciding which of his clients is deserving of a loan.  When he meets ‘Aunt Agatha’ his life changes dramatically.  He undertakes journeys full of adventure and excitement, and pretty soon decides that this life is superior to the “boring” but safe one he has been used to.

The characters are intriguing and well-developed.  Aunt Agatha herself is much more than the ‘little old lady’ her exterior presents.  Her valet/companion/lover from Sierra Leone, Wordsworth, is not the simpleton that his broken English and servile attitude presents, but a devoted and ultimately shattered lover.  The Tooleys – father and daughter – are likeable despite their quirks.  The only major character who remains elusive is Mr Visconti, hard to figure out even when we meet him.  But his function in the novel is as a foil for Aunt Agatha’s pure and blind devotion.

This novel depicts a rite of passage, even though the person undergoing the journey is a mature man.  Learning early on that the woman whose funeral serves as the setting for the novel’s opening is not his real mother, he eventually finds out (and the reader, perhaps, guesses rather sooner) who she is.  Henry learns about life, love (a little) and what matters.

The novel is light-hearted and barely believable, although it deals with serious subjects. Greene is often laugh-out-loud funny, and invariably insightful.  I think the strength of this novel lies in its easy tone which at the same time exposes universal truths.