AmeriCymru: Hi Nigel and many thanks for agreeing to this interview. Care to introduce your latest collection of short stories - Who Killed Emil Kreisler? - for our readers?
Nigel: With pleasure, especially as it has an American link.
Collections of short stories consist almost always of previously published material; published in small literary magazines (SLMs), that is. It was ever thus. As most writers do not produce short fiction on an industrial scale, the stories chosen for a collection usually come from work written and published in SLMs over a lengthy period. One tries to seek publication in magazines one admires, if only for the pleasure of seeing one's efforts alongside work they might be considered to emulate. Among the magazines which first published the stories in Who Killed Emil Kreisler? are the The Lonely Crowd, The Lampeter Review, Tears In The Fence, Skald, and The Erotic Review. That a few of them are Welsh simply reflects the esteem in which published storytelling in Wales is held. But The Erotic Review, for instance, is a London-based, international publication, once manifest in print form, now digital. Increasingly I'm writing for online literary magazines. It may or may not be the way forward; but these sites are certainly ignored at the modern writer's peril.
My first collection, Funderland, was published by Parthian, the Welsh independent. It has been seen by some to have a family theme, in the sense of families dysfunctional, knocked askew by forces internal and external, or otherwise rendered unusual; though this was not my conscious intention. If there was a theme deliberately affecting the choice of stories for Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, it was variety of mood, time, and place; or just plain 'variety'. One reviewer has described me as being, in this collection, 'almost wilfully diverse'. I'm taking that as a compliment though I suppose it could be read another way. The stories skip from Sweden, to Africa, to New York, to Germany, to Los Angeles, to Paris, and to other places. I'll go with 'diverse'; the adverbial predicate of 'wilfully' seeming to suggest that diversity might be an undesirable quality, and that's just plain preposterous. Perhaps one story should be savoured before turning to the next. That way, any travel-sickness will be avoided.
The title story is a fictional take on a real event: the death of the composer Anton Webern, shot dead by a drunken US infantryman towards the end of the second world war. During a curfew in an Austrian town, Webern was visiting a relative who was being investigated by the military for black-marketeering. When Webern stepped outside the house to smoke a cigar, the soldier, an army cook named Raymond Norwood Bell, discharged his rifle in circumstances that remain confusing, and killed him. Bell survived the war and died an alcoholic, full of remorse. It was a tragic event from all angles. I've always been fascinated by the idea of an anonymous soldier unwittingly killing someone famous on the battlefield: the sniper who did for the poet Wilfred Owen, for example, in the Great War. Did he survive? Did he realise what he'd done? Not that this fascination takes anything away from my attitude to the millions who have died anonymously in wars. Writers develop fixations; they can't help it. My story is told by a Bell-like character; Emil Kreisler is the Webern-like one. I think it works. Among the collection's dedicatees, I've placed an in memoriam for Bell. He was as much a victim as the person he killed.
I'm reminded that this story is short, a piece of metafiction, or flash fiction, almost. Others are of various lengths. So, variety of form, too.
Buy 'Who Killed Emil Kreisler?' Here
Wales Arts Review Here
AmeriCymru: You have won awards for your collections of short fiction. What is it about the short story genre that attracts you? What short story writers have influenced and/or inspired you?
Nigel: This is going to sound prosaic or flippant, but I write stories because it doesn't take long. I'm notorious for not revising. I should revise, and my editors for the two collections I've written have suggested changes which, somewhat reluctantly, I've made. Other suggestions I've rejected out of hand, on one occasion dropping a story rather than make the revisions put forward. One knows when a story is right, and that process happens for me almost at the point of initial completion. Not editing, not revising, is bad practice, however, and I wouldn't recommend it. It's just that revision takes time and, as I say, I like writing stories because I can do it reasonably quickly.
The foregoing is directly related to my career as a newspaperman. British daily newspapers work their staff to exhaustion. I used to say that I worked a 25-hour day and an eight-day week. For a long period in my career, it felt that way. When I began writing fiction and poetry, which was late in my case, I certainly worked long and unsocial hours as a reporter. I was married with two young children. I'm grateful to them for allowing me to write when I should have been cleaning the oven, watching Top Of The Pops with them on TV, or joining the search for an escaped hamster. I've seen marriages fail and individuals crumble because of these unrelenting demands. So I wrote at home when I had an hour or so free. It was not an arrangement conducive to the writing of novels. I got a lot of poetry written, which for years I kept to myself, only letting it go when I realised how much dross there was in poetry magazines to which I was subscribing. Another factor was the unswerving commitment needed to be a successful newspaper journalist. I never had it, though I was always pretty good at my job. Employers wondered whether or not your mind was fully engaged if they discovered you had a non-journalistic interest outside the workplace. So, that was additional pressure: you put in the hours to prove beyond doubt that you were doing your best, knowing that any ambitions you harboured in the way of 'proper writing' were being curtailed. Also, the necessity of writing concisely as possible for a newspaper was related to my liking for short fiction. To get it down in as few words as possible was something for which I was paid. Maybe, subconsciously, I thought the same would happen with short stories. But few SLMs pay their contributors. I once described the magazines that publish me as solemn and obscure. Well, most of them are obscure: just ask 99 per cent of the population.
All that said, I like short fiction for other reasons, the main one being a love of the reverberations it sets up. It's a bit like examining a photograph and wondering what events immediately preceded it and what came after. In many ways, and again like photographs, the story is a decisive moment, and no 'momentous' event should wear unnecessary trappings. It's a way in which the writer passes something to the reader for the reader's contribution, the reader's engagement. I like doing that; I like the idea of writing as a collaboration. Someone who'd read a story of mine predicted its imagined outcome in a totally different way from the one I'd envisaged, to the extent of making me think I'd written something dictated by an unseen hand; not that I have any truck with the idea of a Muse perched on my shoulder, ever ready to set me off in some direction or other over which I have no control.
I've always read short fiction for the same reasons as I write it: reading it is quickly accomplished. Thus, I've read a lot of stories, beginning with de Maupassant in my early teens and taking in the great Americans, such as Bierce and Poe. There's been some magical short fiction written in the UK, though I find the British obsession with social class wearisome. Somerset Maugham I like, despite his class proclivities, and among the 'younger' Brits, Hilary Mantel, Graham Swift and Ian McKewan. Pirandello, Brecht, Chekhov (pre-eminently), Tolstoy, Katherine Mansfield and many others have all added something to my understanding of what short fiction is able to achieve. In recent years, and since the advent of the American 'New Realists', my short fiction focus has been New World and South American: Carver, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Lorrie Moore, Vargas Lhosa, Updike, Alice Munro, Marquez, Borges. I love Munro's work, love the way it often wobbles on the border between short story and novella. Her imagination is unstoppable and never less than vivid. I also like the short fiction of the playwright Sam Shepard (there's not much of it, to be sure), because weirdly I can relate it to his writing for theatre. Sometimes, it seems to be theatre-in-progress, notebook jottings for plays or film scripts. I'm always interested in how other writers do what they do, how their minds work, how they make choices. Top of my list at the moment is the American George Saunders, who has raised the short story to the level of high satirical art; he's very funny, as all satirists should be, but also compassionate. I'm a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction, and for a while I bought and read all the out-of-print editions of the Welshman's work. But I now find it a tad dated, despite claims that he was a 'British Chekhov'. There was something suppressed in Davies's work that reflects perhaps his closeted homosexuality. Had he been living today he would have written about it. He was a gay writer who never wrote gay fiction, if we assume that his love of matriarchs were not Oedipal at source. As a stylist, though, he was in his day unsurpassed. Another thing I like about short fiction is that many of its practitioners were once journalists. Hemingway and Graham Greene are good examples. I see them as casting off as soon as possible, in order to get on with something else. In my case, that was work.
AmeriCymru: Which brings us to Funderland . One reviewer opines that, 'Nigel Jarrett's stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity.' How would you describe these stories. Is there one of which you are particularly fond?
Nigel: This is a tricky question, because the description of what I did in that book came from a reviewer (Lesley McDowell, of the Independent on Sunday), not from me. I wouldn't deny it; it's just that I didn't set out to find complexity in the ordinary. Writing about the ordinary because it's ordinary won't get a writer very far, so it's almost inevitable that what interests a writer, what interests me, is something beyond that. A writer's fiction is always assumed to be autobiographical in some way, but on the surface, in terms of fiction's forward-rolling events, this is never the case. What I write about reflects what interests me about human inter-reactions, especially when they are destructive, disappointing, corrupted, or vulnerable to corruption. I once described the collection as 'dark'. I'm not too sure of that now. I do like to write beyond myself and my immediate surroundings. 'Write about what you know' is a common but flawed dictum from teachers of writing. I like to do the opposite: write about what I don't know but what I can imagine. One of the stories in Funderland, Doctor Fritz, concerns a musico-anthropologist who once made a startling discovery, was publicly ridiculed for an error of professional judgement, and is slowly going mad. I know nothing about anthropology or madness, but I believe I wrote an interesting story. I do know something about music, having been a music critic for the last forty years, and I bring some knowledge of that to bear.
When I say the collection is about families in some form or other, I don't mean that my own upbringing was in any way unstable or unsatisfactory. Of course, one has regrets that events didn't turn out as planned or were unfortunate or came about against one's better interests. We'd all do lots of things differently – and we can't choose our parents or the circumstances into which we're born. One must look critically at everything, even one's own growth to maturity, or immaturity, as the case may be. I like complexity. Simplicity or, rather, the simplistic, is a state not to be desired. Being the eldest of three children, or first-born to give my status the looming shadow primogeniture seems to attract, has always made me feel that I'm flawed, as I certainly am. I'm different from my two siblings, though we love each other. Perhaps the stories in Funderland are related to this incomplete person, and have a psychological dimension as a result. Whether or not this converts itself into some universal state that others can identify with is debatable. I hope it does. For certain, if all is well with a writer in terms of surroundings, beliefs, outlook and relationships, there won't be much to write about. Funderland includes the story Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan, which won the Rhys Davies Prize and is included in Story, the Library of Wales's two-volume anthology of 20th and 21st century Welsh short fiction. But my favourite Funderland story is Watching The Birdie, about a newly-married man and his innocent stepdaughter. I wanted to capture the decisive moment of sexual abuse, something I have never encountered in short fiction before, and I believe I succeeded.
Teasing out emotional complexities implies some kind of forensic procedure. For me, writing doesn't work like that. There may be an initial scheme, or roughly sketched plot, but in my experience narratives tend to take off and travel hither and thither, guided by nothing more insubstantial than the workings of imagination and memory. I think memory is important. Bits of my past, suitably transmogrified, pop up in the stories. Although there was nothing even remotely resembling the wickedness of Watching The Birdie in the Jarrett family – quite the opposite - the journey to the seaside undertaken by the characters is one I went on many times as a young boy. You don't forget things like that. They are embedded experiences, and for a writer all such experiences are there to be drawn on; used, if you like.
'...as a music critic by profession, Jarrett has a marvellous ear... And the stand-out story, 'Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan', is an enigmatic study of a Japanese woman's displacement in rural Wales.' Alfred Hickling
'Nigel Jarrett's stories take seemingly ordinary or innocent situations and gently tease out their emotional complexity. Both 'Funderland' and 'A Point of Dishonour' confound expectations superbly...He's not afraid of unusual perspectives and his bravery is well rewarded in this unusual and sensitive collection.' Lesley McDowell
'Funderland, Nigel Jarrett's superb short story collection, demands the tribute of slow and careful reading [...] The revelation of these stories is the vast and subtle and inarticulate web that links and separates us all. Read them slowly, more than once, and learn.'
New Welsh Review
'Funderland is an excellent first offering, giving a thought provoking series of wry, often wistful fresh angles on the fragility of relationships. Readers will want more, anticipating the emergence of a strong, telling voice in fiction from Wales.' Robert Walton
Buy 'Funderland' Here
Interview on Vanessa Gebbie's Blog
Funderland Facebook Page
Review in New Welsh Review
AmeriCymru: Your novel Slowly Burning features an anti-hero, Bunny Patmore, who can't tell the difference between facts and fiction. A somewhat topical theme. What does the novel have to tell us about the relationship. How would you describe the book?
Nigel: Slowly Burning is a first-person account by a former Fleet Street crime bureau chief. He's been washed up on a weekly newspaper in Wales, where he receives a letter in the will of a minor London gangster and takes himself off to Dorset to investigate its implications. There are three stories intertwined, like a triple helix. There's the main narrative whoosh, Bunny's recollections of life as a tabloid reporter, and the story told to him by the gangster's daughter, whom he befriends and who is strangely attracted to his quest.
Bunny is a self-confessed fibber. But I wanted him to be more than that. The idea of the unreliable journalist who nevertheless writes no-smoke-without-fire reports is almost a commonplace in our cynical times, and justifiably so. But, having worked with people like Bunny, I can confirm that they are complex. Bunny is not very nice. Furthermore, I wanted to make him into the reckless and irresponsible scribe of legend. This was a high-risk strategy. I've littered his story with contradictions, misrememberings, inconsistencies, solecisms, errors and all sorts of other things which the reader would question – if the reader notices them at all. If they are recognised, of course, I risk the possibility of their being ascribed to me, not to Bunny. However, one reviewer didn't register any of them (Dan Bradley in the New Welsh Review, whose notice is included in full, below), which sort of gratifies me in proving my point. When the Sun newspaper told its readers that the Hillsborough football stadium disaster was caused by drunken Liverpool fans, its readers believed it. The assertion was proved to be wrong – and Liverpool is now a no-go zone for the Sun newspaper. (But not the rest of the Murdoch Press: the populace can often be dumb and unquestioning.)
The novel unwittingly foreshadows the current and continuing débâcle over truth, 'alternative' truth and half truth. It's no surprise that Brexiteer politicians in the UK lied to the electorate in the same way that President Trump does to his, as if mendacity were an essential part of a certain kind of politics. Not that Britain's 'Remainers' were paragons of rectitude, or that the American Democrats were without fault. Bunny Patmore's favourite author is Thomas Hardy; his nemesis is a woman who is also a Hardy-lover and who supplies him with a 'story' (all 'factual' newspaper reports are 'stories') that he will never publish, because what integrity he possesses triumphs over his newspaperman's instincts. He even has a go at writing a story – a fictional story, like Slowly Burning itself – when his investigations falter or peter out. This play on fact and fiction, truth and lies, error and exactitude, carelessness and attentiveness, is a feature of the book, maybe the main one. I reached the stage in writing Slowly Burning where I considered the manuscript as almost a 'found' object, someone else's musings – Bunny Patmore's. My main aim, I now believe, was to ventriloquise, to write a narrative as a real Bunny Patmore would. We don't often hear from the Bunny Patmores of the world; they are simply people fit to be vilified.
Readers might be interested in the provenance of Slowly Burning's front cover image. It's a photograph by the celebrated 'snapper' John Bignell. When the publisher and I were looking for a suitable illustration, we Googled the words 'Fleet Street pub scene 1950'. This photo was the first to appear, and it led us to the Bignell archive, which is held by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea library. Bignell was active in the Fifties and especially the Sixties, photographing celebrities and others in the context of what was happening in London at the time – the Swinging Sixties and all that. The curator told us that Bignell was notorious for his lack of detailed captions, but thought the Slowly Burning image was of an East End pub scene from around 1958. It's the evocative image we were seeking, portraying a milieu that Bunny Patmore would have recognised immediately. Indeed, the central event in Bunny's recollection concerns the moment he heard about his sick wife's biopsy results (not good) and how he left Piele's bar in Fleet Street to sit outside on the pavement in shock. It's another fictionalised account of a real event, in which an inebriated journalist collapsed outside Piele's and was then retrieved by his companions and taken back inside for 'medication'. It was witnessed by the writer Michael Frayn from a high window at the old Guardian offices, and is included in the foreword to his novel about newspapers, Towards The End Of The Morning. Frayn's recollection is the leading epigraph at the start of Slowly Burning. The RBK&C library alowed us to reproduce the image without payment, as long as we credited Bignell and sent the library a copy of the book. We didn't hesitate.
AmeriCymru: In addition to writing fiction you are also a poet. What can you tell us about 'Miners at the Quarry Pool'?
Nigel: Miners At The Quarry Pool was my first poetry collection, its contents garnered from about ten years' worth of published poems. Poetry magazines are often more solemn and more obscure than fiction ones, and in many cases shorter-lived. Three times I've had poems accepted for publication only for the magazine concerned to fold before it got round to printing them. I like to joke that the collection has nothing to do with miners, quarries, or quarry pools, in the way a lot of poetry these days seems to revel in its incomprehensible peculiarity. The reviewer in Poetry Wales, though calling me 'a clever writer' (a case of damning with oblique praise), thought some of the poems were 'resistant to reading'. He'd obviously never read the more arcane cantos of Ezra Pound. (I've made a few appearances in Agenda, the magazine co-founded by Pound, whose current editor, Patricia McCarthy, described my collection as 'a virtuoso performance'. So there you are. You take your pick.) Unlike stories, poems suggest themselves to me as out-of-the-blue bolts, and I have to start on them straight-away, even when I'm lying in bed at night, fully awake. There's a poem written directly after my mother died, which refers, inter alia, to my son high in her apple tree and spraying the blossom. There's another, written after a method was discovered of slowing down Great War film footage to normal speed, which suggested to me that it now took longer to wage, that its horrors would be prolonged. There's also a poem based on two famous American photographs.
When I say the collection's not about miners, etc., I nevertheless dedicate it to my grandfathers, who were at one time both coalminers, entering daily the former Cwmbran Colliery adit mine (they walked three more miles to the face after a lift on a conveyor). One reviewer likened the collection to excavations, thus partly vindicating the dedication, albeit tortuously. I would describe it as diverse in subject-matter, like the second story collection, and, more importantly according to my editor, Alan Kellermann, a celebration of poetic brevity. There are not many long poems in there, and I think Alan was referring to brevity of utterance at a time when much poetry tends to be dense, overloaded or verbose. I don't 'do' allusive. Pound looked for pin-point accuracy in a poem, the way a coin is made by the hammering nose of the die – hard, once-only and instantaneous - and that's what I strive for.
I continue to write poetry. I'm putting together a second collection, which might be called Brevities. I find it difficult to establish my own, unmistakeable, poetic voice, but I'll know when I've found it.
Review on New Welsh Review
Review on Lunar Poetry Blog
Buy 'Miners At The Quarry Pool' Here
AmeriCymru: What are you reading at the moment? Any recommendations?
Nigel: I tend to be catching up with books I should have read years ago. Amazon has many faults, but you can't beat it for finding the most long-lost title and often charging what it amusingly calls £0.01. Paying an extra £2.80 for packing and postage seems worth the cost. I'm a reasonably competent draughtsman, and I created the image for the cover of Who Killed Emil Kreisler? So many of my book purchases are volumes on art. I've just bought for 70p a lovely Phaidon copy of Otto Benesch's 1960 essay on Rembrandt as a draughtsman. I'll be reading that and looking at it soon.
Again for £0.01, I recently bought Margaret Atwood's Negotiating With The Dead, one of a number of books I have on writers writing about being a writer. Hemingway was the master of that, in letters to Maxwell Perkins, Scott Fitzgerald and others. When writers die, as William Trevor did a few months ago, I do them the honour of reading books by them that for one reason or another passed me by when they first came out. At the time of doing this interview, I was half way through his collection, Cheating At Canasta. Julian Barnes seems to me to be an increasingly important British writer, maybe greater in the long run than Amis junior, Swift, and McKewan; he's the most experimental. I read living Welsh authors out of patriotic duty, though I find patriotism a dubious trait. That's another story! Among the ones I've just read are The Scrapbook, by Carly Holmes; The Dig, by Cynan Jones; and Dangerous Asylums, edited by Rob Mimpriss. I reviewed this last one; it's a collection of fictions by North Wales writers and is based on patient records from the former Denbigh Asylum. I reviewed it for the Wales Arts Review. Just before Christmas I treated myself to a first edition of Arfon, by Rhys Davies. It turned out to be number 115 of a limited edition of 400, published by Foyle and signed by the author in his distinctive hand. I'll treasure that.
Review of 'Dangerous Asylums'
AmeriCymru: What are you working on at the moment? Can we expect any new titles soon?
Nigel: I'm half way through a second novel, provisionally called The Newhaven Foxes, about...well, I won't give that away just yet. And there's the second poetry collection I mentioned. I've just sent a few poems to Poetry Wales and The Lonely Crowd, the latter edited by John Lavin, former editor of The Lampeter Review and now associate editor of the Wales Arts Review. I try to write something every day, whether it's a review, a blog entry or a long email to friends. I just received a postcard from Alan Bennett, having written to him about his new book and suggesting that Northern humour and Northern life, of which he's an exponent, have echoes in the industrial valleys of SE Wales. What a gracious man to be bothered to handwrite a reply to one letter in what must be a weekly cataract of correspondence. I wish I could write a play. I've tried, but it never works. I've realised, too, that I'll soon have enough stories to put together a third collection. Although I started writing, proper writing, relatively late, I never remind myself of missed opportunities. I just get on with things. A colleague told me that if writers give up writing because they are not achieving success, they are not really writers. I know what he meant. I've been keeping on for a long time, and I'll keep on keeping on, no matter what.
AmeriCymru: Any final message for the members and readers of AmeriCymru?
Nigel: Do buy titles from independent Welsh publishers such as Parthian, Seren, YLolfa, and Gomer. But don't forget Welsh writers, such as Sarah Waters, Cynan Jones, Niall Griffiths, and, lately, Kate Hamer, who have been picked up by the big British publishers: Cape, Faber, and that lot. I like to think they've put to sea in a coracle on the Severn and paddled straight to the Modern Babylon, there to make the case for Welsh writing of a peculiarly universal sort. We've always been exporters. It shows that we are not regional or provincial, or anything else indicative of an immodest place in the scheme of things. Was Dylan Thomas a Welsh writer? Well, yes. But he was also more than that.
And finally – if you can get your hands on The Day's Portion (Village Publishing), a book of Arthur Machen's non-fiction edited by me and my old friend Godfrey Brangham in the late 1980s, you won't regret it. In the spirit of Machen the forewordsmith, there are three introductions: by me, Goff, and the esteemed publisher, Mel Witherden. Sufficient unto the day thereof.
Links to other interviews with Nigel Jarrett:
Interview on th 'Great Word Nerd'
Interview on Vanessa Gebbie's Blog
Interview on 'Writerchristopherfischer'
Interview on 'Writer's Corner Cymru'
REVIEW OF 'SLOWLY BURNING' BY DAN BRADLEY
NWR Issue 9 'Slowly Burning' by Nigel Jarrett
Prolific Welsh wordsmith Nigel Jarrett has already excelled in a variety of shorter forms; his story collection Funderland won praise in these pages as well as in the Independent and the Guardian. His story from the collection, ‘Mrs Kuroda on Penyfan’ was a prize winner in the Rhys Davies Short Story Competition; his debut poetry collection Miners at the Quarry Pool was released by Parthian in 2013; and, in a journalistic career spanning thirty years, he has published countless stories, essays and music reviews. Jarrett draws on these decades of industry experience in this West Country noir about a former crime bureau chief drawn into one last mystery. But is Jarret’s nostalgic debut about the life of worldweary newspaperman front page news, or merely yesterday’s?
Our pun-toting protoganist is Bunny Patmore, a former Fleet Street journalist who once rubbed shoulders with the stars and athletes of the day, not to mention the criminals, but now finds himself languishing at a ‘solemn and obscure weekly called the Welsh Messenger’, and feeling ‘part of a vanished time, foreign to the youngsters I work with....’ One he day he receives a mysterious letter, left to him in the will of a grubby London gangster, which promises to cast light on a brutal gangland double murder from his past. This cryptic letter will lead our ‘rhino-skinned prodnose’ across Wales and the south west for one last scoop as he casts disturbing new light on the case, uncovers dark family secrets, finds love and maybe even peace.
The novel revels in vivid detail and humour. Bunny wonderfully describes a British boxer enjoying a brief time in the limelight before sinking ‘back into obscurity, like an ugly fish reversing under its stone after a spectacularly bloody meal.’ Jarrett has a great ear for turn of phrase, wordplay, and in Bunny, an erudite, hyperbolic, worldweary and self-deprecating newspaperman, Jarrett has free rein to enjoy himself. Bunny, pecking on his ‘tripewriter’, tells us: ‘Door-stopping. Now there’s an airborne duck of a word. And if you don’t know your rhyming slang[,] I, as Cockneyed as they come, couldn’t care a Margate candy floss.’
These kind of condescending and self-satisfied jokes could easily grow annoying but this tone often suddenly makes way for Bunny’s – or perhaps Jarrett’s – true voice, which is much sadder and more reflective. This is the writing that is most affecting, perhaps more so because it reveals Bunny’s fragility and loneliness beneath his carapace of bravado and knee-jerk cynicism. In particular, as he falls more deeply in love with Marian, the dead gangster’s daughter, he starts to make sense of his troubled, alcohol-sodden marriage to Bella:
Don’t believe the tossers who preach the attraction of opposites, because they know not what they utter. They certainly don’t understand [that] in a relationship of crunching personalities, different interests and eccentric ways all involve a kind of secrecy – a double lot when a couple can’t agree to compromise. I still stand at the kitchen sink, eighteen years on, saying ‘Sorry’ to an empty back garden.
Bunny and his turn of phrase are good company, and the thoughtful interrogation of truth and fiction are effective, but, in many ways, the novel fails to deliver on its promises. Bunny makes much of the unreliability of his own account, and the need for scepticism in reading his tale, but this never finds a satisfying pay-off. The first person perspective is ideal for misdirection but it is not used; apart from being an occasionally unscrupulous journalist, Bunny is completely earnest about his story and use of language. And as we know he lived to write this tale, we see our anti-hero facing peril but we never sense any danger. There aren’t enough twists to really justify the journey the reader takes, and the noir-suffused atmosphere and characters, like his side-kick Georg buried in the Guardian archives, busy finding Bunny new leads, too often lean towards caricature.
There is definitely a parallel pleasure in reading Slowly Burning, as we constantly wonder how much of Bunny’s story is imagined, and how much was taken directly from Jarrett’s own life as a newspaperman. And the novel is a moving portrait of ageing and a quickly fading way of life, not to mention being another showcase for Jarrett’s fine writing. But a strong voice – and Bunny is certainly a memorable narrator – is not quite enough to sustain a novel of this length when the plot and subject matter feel so well trodden.