A Degree of Uncertainly by Nicola K Smith – a small town, a university and an uneasy relationship


A man fights for the future of a small Cornish town. A woman pursues an ambition that even she doesn’t understand. It could be seen as a simple story, but this contemporary tale is full of characters who are funny, endearing, petulant, aggressive and so much more. This is a book that explores depression, talent and determination and so much else. There is a tremendous sense of the absurd as long term residents of the town come into conflict with those who want to expand student numbers. I really enjoyed this imaginative and detailed book, and was very happy to have the opportunity to read and review it.


 As the main character, Harry Manchester, tries to keep his estranged wife and his younger girlfriend content, he realises that he is vulnerable. Dawn Goldberg is a powerful force in the university, and has ambitions to be even more powerful and to be paid even more. There are students with their own agendas, as they discover the realities of living in overcrowded accommodation and trying to study in wholly inadequate facilities. Ludo, a young man with many ideas, is trying to make a difference in the area, while the wonderfully named Roskstr demonstrates amazing talents. This is the story of a community in turmoil, a story of contemporary pressures and obsessions, written with a keen eye for human frailties and the contrast between small town gossip and the power of social media.


The author has created two main characters with real depth. Harry is a man of contradictions but so likable. He can be inspiring and attractive, giving people a real sense of purpose, while trying to be fair and kind to everyone. He does get himself into tricky situations, however, and knows real panic at times. Dawn is certainly a piece of work. Her interest in the large male statue is perhaps telling, as well as her attraction for luxury and fast cars. She is harsh to her employees, self obsessed and is developing some bad habits. The effects of Harry and Dawn’s behaviour on those around them is fascinating. I felt for Nell, whose story is challenging, and an illustration of what is happening in the town as a whole.


This book asks real questions and combines pathos and humour to provide a entertaining and fascinating picture of a small society. It looks at how students faced with high fees and reducing facilities on the one hand, cause trouble for the town in which they live. The problems of small businesses in the twenty first century are exposed, as well as the problems of morality in the face of business necessity.


I found this to be a well constructed and meaningful book, with memorable characters and gentle situational humour. There is so much in it, giving depth as Harry loves the music of Queen, while Dawn is fascinated by cars. The tensions expressed in the town are well balanced and generally well handled. I genuinely enjoyed this novel, and recommend it as a gentle but strangely powerful contemporary read.