A gentle, often funny, always absorbing book which follows the life of a person throughout the twentieth century in all its ups and downs. This is not a sanitised tale of rural idyll or great house generations; rather this is a book featuring an unreliable narrator, whose age and motives mean that his own history slips and slides from his grasp. He is not trying to remember great social upheavals, his working life or even his wartime experiences, just trying “To remember what love was like”. Evoking the careful documenting of loves and lives in such books as Boyd’s “Any Human Heart”, this is a book of an ordinary man doing his best to survive, find love and recall his loves as a very elderly man in an ordinary care home. I was delighted to be invited to read and review this book as part of a blog tour.
Billy Binns is old. The eldest man in the home, possibly the oldest man in the country. The same age as the century, he fully grasps the life of the home around him, as his fellow residents arrive and depart, sitting in the same armchairs, being versions of themselves when younger. Although no one visits him, he suddenly decides that he must leave his memories written for his son, Archie. Tapping away on a borrowed typewriter, he strives to remember the women he loved. In the process he recalls his service in the First World War as an aerial spotter, and it is this part of the book that research is so carefully embedded in the writing that the reader is drawn in, following the progress of the wounded man as he recalls the grim realities of life and death on the Western Front. The actions and reactions of that time will stretch into his later life, as the accidents, coincidences and sheer living of life in a certain part of London dominate his memory. The effort of memory, of trying to feel what love actually means, slips in and out of focus as life and death in the Home carries on, with revelations of how unreliable his recollections can be in reality. The thread of a life carries on through his guilt and disappointment, laced with sadness and some pleasure, made vivid through the smells, sounds and sights of London and beyond. Even though the Second World War is not his war in his view, his blitz experience is momentous, and leads to some strange, even bizarre behaviour on his part.
I found this book moving, at times tender, fascinating and at times gritty in its realism. This book is not sentimental, but some of the actions stick fast as I realised that love is not always obvious, and there are several sorts of love portrayed in this book. This novel breathes life, love and the determination to live in the best way possible, even if that sometimes feels so difficult. Billy is no saint, but often more sinned against than sinning, and he is an essentially human creation. This book does more than draw the reader in; it gently shocks, yet it also explains why and what happens so skilfully that the reader discovers alongside Billy the reality of his actions and reactions. I recommend this book for its empathy, its quiet power, and its moving recall of life in the twentieth century.
Yes, it is the actor! I was trying to remember where I had seen him; it turns out he was in “Sense and Sensibility”. This book certainly proves he is multi-talented.
In other news, the next big Book Sale in happening in March. We have decided that this time it will largely be in aid of Ronald Mcdonald House charity https://www.rmhc.org.uk/ which offers accommodation for families when a child is in hospital – we stayed in one in 2004 when one of our sons was in a London hospital, and they were amazing. They are still very much active in the UK, making a real difference in lives. So, many books, a good time, and money raised for charities. Sounds good to me!