There’s a problem that faces authors trying to write characters with a mental illness. Being inside the head of someone with a psychological condition doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting experience for the reader.
The Beginning of the End, a debut novel by Ian Parkinson from publisher Salt, runs slap-bang into this problem. The main character, Raymond, suffers from depression and addiction problems. Parkinson reflects this with a approach that is heavy, slow, one might say ponderous. Unfortunately that often makes reading it a difficult and dull experience, a bit of a slog. The review chosen for the front of the novel describes it as ‘hypnotic’ and I certainly found my eyelids getting heavy at times.
Raymond is a damaged man, with a difficult family background, who searches for connection but mistakes sexual desire for intimacy. The desperation for human contact takes him to Thailand, where he marries Joy in an arrangement of convenience. After he takes her home to Belgium he finds that their relationship revolves around sex, with Joy becoming a porn star and the couple engaging in affairs with multiple partners.
In such subject matter, I was reminded of Irvine Welsh’s work. Like Trainspotting or Porno, The Beginning of the End is shot through with grimness and it’s admirable how unflinching the author is in showing the grubbiness of the situation, how willing he is get down and dirty as it were. But there’s only so many times that you want to hear about someone masturbating or watching their wife having sex with other men before it starts to bore a little.
It would help if the author had a slightly more expansive style. Although Parkinson is not a bad writer, indeed he has a nice, simple technique, he tends to come unstuck when he tries to be more descriptive. At these points the writing can be very clumsy. For example, at one point Raymond notices ‘a blonde police officer was bending over and rotating her buttocks, exposing the red lace of her panties.’ Now I’m not sure what a rotating buttock looks like, and I can’t confess to be keen to find out.
As the novel proceeds, Raymond’s mental health deteriorates along with his relationship with Joy. He retreats from the world to his late father’s decaying beachside house and increasingly his thoughts turn from sex to death. Here Parkinson’s unflinching gaze is a benefit, his unwillingness to gloss over the less tasteful elements of human behaviour. I was particularly struck by a passage where Raymond muses over the grave of somebody close to him and his thoughts turn from the romantic clichés of death, ‘As usual, I started to think about her putrefaction.’ It’s a lovely, unexpected jump that aids the understanding of Raymond’s gloomy condition.
The problem here, however, is structural. Parkinson obviously wants to show the spiralling descent of his character. In this it’s similar to Sebastian Faulk’s Engleby, also about a character whose mental health difficulties worsen over the course of the novel. But Raymond starts too far from the edge. He’s in too extreme a state to begin with, so the sense of emotional movement beyond that is limited. Later you get the sense that the writer has tried to get this emotional movement into the book, but he’s left it too late, so there is a brief flurry of action followed by a return to torpor.
Despite this, the final third of the novel hits, at points, a pleasant melancholic tone and you can sense a definite talent emerging. But then this is undercut by a confusingly abrupt ending and you wish Parkinson had given himself more time and space at this point.
Hopefully when it comes to his second novel Parkinson will be able to find this melancholic tone again but elsewhere manage to add a little more energy into proceedings, a little more life.
The Beginning of the End was published by Salt Publishing on 15th May 2015.
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Review by Joseph Surtees