Duncan Neville is an unlikely hero for a novel. Approaching 50, divorced and the butt of his teenage son Jamie’s utter contempt, Duncan is also the eloquent yet mild-mannered editor of the Francombe Mercury, a local newspaper on its last legs. Francombe too has seen better days, not least since its pier burnt down in 2013 (an event covered fulsomely in the Mercury).
While Duncan negotiates a good take-over deal for Mercury staff and their pensions, he’s also trying to prevent the ruined pier from being developed into a sex theme park by his schoolboy nemesis Geoffrey Weedon. The fact that Duncan’s ex-wife Linda is married to Geoffrey’s brother doesn’t help. Thank goodness then for Ellen, a new arrival to Francombe after the jailing of her fraudster husband. And thank God for Henry the vicar, whose despair and guilt over his homosexuality soothe Duncan in his own periods of self-doubt.
A narrative like this plays to Arditti’s great strength, dissecting modern relationships. He has a mimic’s ear for inter-generational dialogue, as Duncan tries in vain to bond with Jamie, and Ellen’s son Neil and daughter Sue act out their teenage angst. Scene-stealer of the year award goes to Duncan’s splendidly caustic mother Adele, especially when she meets her match in Ellen’s hippy mother Barbara. Barbara’s polite thanks at being included for Christmas lunch is met with: ‘Not at all. We have a long tradition of inviting waifs and strays.’
Yet for all the sparky one-liners, the crisp satire on small-town preoccupations and the increasingly hilarious newspaper columns prefacing each chapter, this is a profound and unsettling book. Many of the lives portrayed possess an almost unbearable post-lapsarian sadness, the characters fully aware that something has been lost, if not quite fully grasping what that something might be.
What we have lost, Duncan would argue, is kindness within communities. Whether it’s as a result of technology, broken relationships or a loss of faith, what pains him most is our disconnection from each other and from ourselves. ‘I can’t work out,’ he tells the vicar, ‘if the community will lose its mouthpiece because the Mercury’s failed or the Mercury’s failed because there’s no longer a community that needs a mouthpiece.’
Like the widows and orphans of the title, a term for the words or sentences left dangling at the top or bottom of columns, Jamie and Neil typify this dysfunction. Struggling not just with adolescence but with the fallout of their respective broken homes, their casual cruelty moves from the wince-making to the truly shocking until a brutal homophobic attack and an act of spite propel all the characters, grippingly, towards calamity.
As a girl from (near) Bognor Regis, I can confirm that at times Arditti does perhaps too good a job at portraying the inertia of a seaside town, and some early chapters sag under the weight of parochial concerns. Yet, it’s exhilarating to read a contemporary novel that forces us to assess (or reassess) our own moral codes. Whether it’s faith, big business, gays or geriatric care, at its heart this is a novel about what keeps us human.
This is familiar Arditti territory. Less angry than Pagan and her Parents, less theological than Easter or The Enemy of the Good, still Widows and Orphans is energised by Arditti’s moral convictions, his disappointments and, ultimately, his hope for the world. And in Duncan, Arditti has written a hero for the way we live now. His motto could easily be the one used as the novel’s epigraph, attributed to Philo of Alexandria: ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.’ Like a Graham Greene for our time, Arditti has written an exquisite novel which traces the challenging journey of the human heart towards the grace of acceptance.
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