Book review: The Street

BERNADINE BISHOP’s name is hardly as well-known as Anne Tyler’s, yet the Londoner is easily and breezily an equal for Tyler at her best. 

Book review: The Street

Bernadine Bishop

Sceptre, £8.99

The Street is a hugely enjoyable little book that is just a joy.

Some books have moments of epiphany when the particulars of the story elevate to something like transcendence.

Amazingly, almost every page of this book radiates in that kind of glow.

Even though so many of the stories flowing through the novel are quite ordinary and deal with real people muddling through their lives the book is charged with tangible joy and love.

And it catches you very unexpectedly among the myriad equivocations and miniature duplicities.

One of the characters studies snails. She tells her friends and the children on the street about their ways.

One woman friend, who as a gardener has spent her times trying to rid her place of snails, is now so aware of the little creatures that she flinches at the idea that she might have accidentally stood on one.

The book is not a metaphor seeking device, thriving instead on a real sense of the humanity of the characters.

But if there was a metaphor for the keen sense with which Bishop mines for the most sensitive tendrils of life around us it is in this cherishing of the lowly snail.

One of the characters is an out of work actor whose wife is the main (only) earner and they row over money.

He’s cracking up at home so he takes a job at the local pub. Bishop examines the fall-out from this decision with wit and pathos.

He’s delighted to be earning, he’s got a good way with customers so trade in the sleepy pub picks up, the pub landlady has a crush on him and his wife misses the fact that he’s not there when she comes home.

While it is no more than the plotline of your regular soap Bishop has too much intelligence as a writer to play it for any obvious or cheap drama as the characters fumble their way into the new dimensions of their lives.

Anne is the central character. She loves the street and has a generous curiosity about what goes on around her.

Her daughter moves to Canada with her husband and younger children and decides to leave 11-year-old John to live with grandmother Anne and granddad Eric.

Anne frets about being up to the task, Eric takes it in his stride. Although unsentimental quite a few (not all) things in this story have a happy knack of turning out for the best.

Years from now when several of the story lines will have faded from memory one is likely to last and that is the friendship between Georgia, the 59-year-old woman who lives alone and travels the world in her hugely empathetic study of snails.

She befriends Anne who is 70 and for want of a better word she develops a crush on Anne who agrees to let Georgia paint her. So Anne sits for many happy hours with her patchwork quilt across her lap being painted by Anne.

It is polite but quietly intimate and Georgia is respectful of Eric who is not entirely a lost cause.

This story unfolds with grace and humour and when it comes their expression of love is one of the most quietly dignified love scenes ever put to paper.

The characterisation of children in the story and how they connect with a war veteran withdrawing into himself and into Alzheimer’s is another high point in this beautiful book.

A dramatic event on the street draws a number of narrative threads together and sends the story positively humming for the final pages until you hit the last line, moved, and only sorry that the book isn’t twice as long.

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