Still Crazy by R.N.F Skinner – a story of Cambridge, humour and characters drawn with great depth

Still Crazy by R.N.F. Skinner

Phil is an undergraduate at Cambridge University in the early 1970s when he meets Melanie. She is a far more successful student academically than he is, especially as he spends a lot of his time devising sketches with his revue group “Air Raid Precautions”. He falls in love, but she has a past and present distractions to contend with as well as her genuine attraction to him. Amid humour from Phil’s friends, Melanie’s spiritual concerns and simple circumstances, their relationship does not run smoothly.

This is a story told in flashbacks as the present time, in the late 1990s, reveals Phil and Melanie in different relationships and simply not having seen each other for twenty-five years. Meeting in a group of friends and acquaintances they both feel extremely uncomfortable, yet they acknowledge that the mutual attraction is still there. This cleverly constructed book uses several techniques to build up the nonlinear story of a relationship which begins for a couple in their late teens and early twenties, but cannot continue in the same vein. I found it a story with a tremendous atmosphere as I was an undergraduate in Cambridge several years after the setting of this story, and can directly relate to large parts of this book. The characters of Phil and Melanie have the opportunity to tell their own stories, reveal their own motives and experiences, as well as their reactions to what the other says and does. The other characters in the novel are funny, touching, troubling and so much more; each character has layers. The excitement of being in Cambridge and the opportunities it offers is contrasted with the obligation to study and the various people one encounters. Emotions are carefully described, dialogue is often witty and truthful and this book proved to be very enjoyable and readable. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book. 

The novel begins with a Prologue set in 1958 which features Melanie as a child at Loch Lomond, where she has a spiritual experience which will provoke her into asking questions of religion for many years. One of the main strands of the novel features the time period of the 1990s, as Melanie states “How extraordinary. I saw Phil yesterday…I spent the evening in his company with others”. It is twenty- four years since she has seen him, and she is aware that they have both changed, at least physically. What emerges is that the attraction is still there, they have words, phrases in common, the sense of humour still draws them together. They can only speak briefly, quietly, as it is a dinner party. In attendance is Melanie’s husband Simon, their new friends who include Patrick, a Bible quoting strong character, Jimmy who is more interested in his wine collection than his wife Charlotte, and Sam who seems actively possessive of Phil. As conversation ranges through religion and politics, Phil reveals that he still has his wicked sense of humour, and that he is separated from his wife Ros though very attached to their two adult daughters. Phil’s subsequent section of the narrative reverts back to Cambridge in 1971, when he had just finished a cabaret performance with his friends Alex and Rob. On a high from the applause he meets Melanie at the party, and they are immediately attracted to each other. However, before Phil can discover much more about her she disappears, and his frustrated pursuit of her begins.

This novel is told in brief chapters which alternate viewpoints and time periods in quite a fast moving way. It emerges as quite a complex narrative, which is handled with confidence as characters are revealed in real depth. As Phil is confused and hurt by Melanie’s actions, the reader finds out the details of her reasons and motives. This is a touching, funny and most enjoyable book, and I recommend it as a story of real depth.