Intelligent dark novel
Review: Alannah Hopkin
Dalkey Archive Press, €12.85; ebook, €12.85
This is the second novel by Dubliner John Toomey (born 1975), whose debut, Sleepwalker, was garlanded with praise by Colum McCann and journalist John Waters.
Huddleston Road is a dark story, tightly focused and powerfully told, further proof that Toomey is a seriously ambitious writer.
The central character, Vic, from a middle-class Dublin background, lived at home and drifted for a few years after leaving school, before going to university in London, aged 21. He becomes a teacher at a large school where he befriends James, a more experienced Welshman. Through James he meets Lali, a skinny young beauty with coffee skin and jet black hair who takes him home and seduces him. Although London-born Lali has little in common with the quieter, more studious Vic, they fall into a steady relationship.
There are warning signs suggesting that all is not well with Lali: Vic’s only relation in London, his cousin Orla, ten years older, a mother of two with a nice husband and a house in Hampstead, is politely accepting of Lali, in spite of Lali’s aggression at their initial meeting. Vic’s conciliatory nature allows him to live with Lali’s more volatile temperament, which ranges from taciturn to gregarious, fuelled largely by vodka. Most worrying of all to Vic are her sudden disappearances that last for days.
These turn out to be spent in north London with her grandmother, who brought her up when her teenage mother, whom she describes as ‘a drunky’ ran away. When her grandmother suddenly dies, Lali decides to buy a house in north London, taking Vic with her. Soon after, their daughter Jessica is born, and Part One of the novel ends.
There is a bold leap of seven years between Parts One and Two. Vic has left Lali and is living in utter misery in a bedsit, the loneliest he has ever been. The description of Vic’s downward spiral, becoming “just another broken Irishman in a London bar” and then “a surly drunk, unrecognisable to himself” is a frightening tour de force. It happens alongside strong hints that something terrible is about to happen to Lali. When it does, she almost brings Vic down with her, sucking him into a nightmarish online world of evil chat rooms.
The story is not what distinguishes this novel: it is the bravura of the writing. Toomey has an innovative turn of phrase and a wide vocabulary. Sometimes his choice of word could be challenged (for example, should analeptic on page 137 have read cataleptic, or anaphylactic?), but it is good to find a writer and a publisher assuming that there are intelligent adventurous readers out there for intelligent, adventurous novels.
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