Midland by James Flint – Family Life in the twenty – first century

Careful, thoughtful and of its (recent) time, this is a book of precision writing, immense research and considered construction. “Midland” features not only the people of a geographical area of Britain, without extremes and in contrast to an exotic lifestyle enjoyed by some of the characters. This is a book which carefully looks at both the obvious motives and the deeper feelings of several characters, so that events are seen from various viewpoints, felt at a micro level. Always told in the third person, as we follow one or another male character, we learn their reasoning behind their actions, often in response to the surprising and illogical events around them. Pinned to newsworthy events as a whale being stuck in the Thames, the destruction of the twin towers, and the financial threats of the early twenty first century, this is very much a novel of the current day, while attempting to create the idea of truths about family life and people which transcend a particular era. I was pleased to be given the opportunity to read and review this book as part of a blog tour.

The book opens with a character, Alex, behaving in a completely unlikely way. Working in the financial sector and handing significant sums of money on a daily basis, and “living in the London of the £65 million townhouse, the £15 million restaurant refit, the £2 million studio flat”, he lives an idyllic life with the beautiful Mia and little Rufus. Suddenly he feels the urge to walk into the river Thames to try to assist a whale who has taken a wrong turn, thereby ruining his eye wateringly expensive suit and shoes. Obsessing about the whale, he remembers the fate of the Twin Towers in 2001, when he was on an exotic beach. He is further jolted into uncomfortable memories by the news of the death of his mother’s first husband, Tony, a difficult man. As families gather, the return of Jamie disrupts and dismays, and it is only by sections which go back into history that the exact reasons emerge; how youthful love felt deeply by Matthew has shaped his thinking, how instant attraction for Alex and Mia has affected Sean, how the causal drug taking of several of the characters may have been an important feature of lives which have failed in some senses. All of this somewhat disjointed narrative, moving backwards in time, shows how discoveries and trauma have happened, even without aggressive intention by anyone.

There are parts of this novel which I found absorbing, amusing and enjoyable. Other parts, such as a painfully detailed explanation of the LIBOR risks and its potential effects on some of the minor characters, showed that research, which while fascinating, affected the flow of this novel. It is a big read, taking in a large time span and an impressively big interwoven cast of characters, and there is a genuine feeling for the time and place, whether that be the gentle countryside of the Midlands and the mythical Forest of Arden, or the exotic yet subtly dangerous beaches of warmer climes. I was impressed by so much of this novel with its subtle changes from gap years adventure, teenage love, and sharp business, against a background of family life in which people live in such realistic ways such as semi rural houses, and the sorrow of huge events. I found some of the precise writing about the details of discoveries slowed the flow of the book unnecessarily. Overall, this is a superbly written book, reflecting an impressive understanding of people and their motives, and it amounts to an absorbing read.

Living in the Midlands again meant that this book has particular resonance for me. I do enjoy living in the middle of the country where most places, including London, are within reach; at least in comparison with the time we spent in Newcastle. Mind you, the countryside is not as flat as Cambridgeshire – especially when trying to get a wheelchair up and down slopes!