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Best of 2018: Fiction

by PAUL SIMON

THE SUBJECT of Marc Mulholland's The Murderer of Warren Street (Hutchinson) is the 19th century proto-socialist Emmanuel Barthelemy and, while the book is a work of non-fiction, it's as fast-paced and eventful as any novel.

 

 Parthian Books)
Iron man: Glen James Brown (Pic: Parthian Books)

Barthelemy, inspired by the Jacobin St Just, emerges as an almost Promethean working-class hero. Sent to the galleys for killing an Establishment agent in 1830, after his release, he became a key barricade commander during the revolutionary June days of 1848 in Paris as the red republicans strove to wrest control from the bourgeoisie.

 

If Barthelemy is a character to be admired for his partisanship and utter commitment to the radical cause, he is also a reminder of what happens when the individual separates himself too readily from the mass movement.

 

Fast forward some 50 years and Kate Hunter’s The Caseroom (The Fledgling Press) transports the reader to Edinburgh’s printing industry and the reactionary efforts of some trade unions to withdraw employment from the industry’s many female workers.

 

The novel's protagonist is Iza Ross, whom we meet as she is about to begin work as a compositor in the print trade. Initially somewhat naive, she becomes increasingly aware of the underlying issues that are determining her life.

 

The novel is a lesson in the limitations of economism and the tendency of politically naive trade unionism to fracture and set worker against worker — in short, do the job of the bosses. As one of the marginal characters suggests, why don’t they agitate to level women’s rates upwards?

 

Simon Blumenfeld’s Phineas Kahn (London Books) starts before the eponymous protagonist is conceived, with the novel spanning a number of generations of the Kahn family.

 

But the focus is mostly on Phineas, as he and his wife Shandel settle in London and, over the years, his family experiences the depredations inflicted on the working class by unbridled capitalism — lack of food, slum housing, insecure and humiliating work, poor health provision and the well-meaning but patronising support provided by bourgeois Jewish relief agencies.

 

Yet the couple have souls of iron and never succumb to despair as they seek to support their rapidly growing family. Phineas plays one exploitative boss off against another, travels to the US for a time to boost the family’s prospects and witnesses the academic and professional successes of the couple’s elder children.

 

Alex Wheatle’s Home Boys (Arcadia Books), a modern version of a boy’s own story, is set in a 1970s London children’s home. The pacey narrative follows four friends who abscond together from the institution and, spurred on by a pledge of loyalty, they outwit the authorities, face some of their own fears and re-establish, even if only for a while, a measure of control over their own lives.

 

The author effectively uses the genre to explore and explain the devastating consequences of children brought up in a largely loveless and, at times, abusive environment.

 

Edward Wilson's latest William Catesby novel, South Atlantic Requiem (Arcadia Books), has the left-wing spook at the epicentre of another crisis — this time, he's trying to bolster the Peruvian peace initiative eventually scuppered by Thatcher’s criminal decision to attack the General Belgrano as it headed away from the Malvinas.

 

Wilson writes really well, combining the detail of a historian with the pathos and humour readers have come to expect from the series. Tellingly, the book ends 30 years on as Catesby, browsing the shelves of the Halesworth Co-op for wine, bumps into the widow of a British officer killed by Thatcher’s adventurism.

 

My book of the year is Ironopolis (Parthian Books), an extraordinary novel by any measure and, for a debut work, Glen James Brown’s fiction debut is breath-taking in its ambition and delivery.

 

Employing the testimonies of six different people living on a Middlesbrough estate, the author meshes together their shared histories over a number of decades. In so doing, Brown exposes the loyalties and antagonisms that lie within the infrastructure of any working-class community — the veins that keep it alive.

 

The predominant social realist style is at times uncompromising and often bleak in recording the injustices and ill-luck heaped upon the protagonists.

 

Yet Ironopolis also records the resilience and solidarity that ensures that most residents, whatever has befallen them, do not want to be shipped out and away by the housing association. It typifies a common theme running through the best left-wing fiction this year — struggle and what it means to a militant working class.

 

And, in my view, it's the best working-class novel of the last few years.

 

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