Sometimes the change in tone, in storyline, of a novel can be so unexpected, so jarring, that the reader feels completely derailed. It’s as if you’re on your way somewhere expected, you’re enjoying the travel and the view, when all of a sudden there’s an almighty crash, the ground is suddenly the sky and people are screaming.
That crash occurs around two-thirds of the way into Habit by Stephen McGeagh. It’s a book that starts off examining the life of, for want of a better word, a British underclass, but becomes something completely different, something far more violent. Without wishing to give too much away, it’s almost as if Saturday night and Sunday morning morphed into the Texas chainsaw massacre.
This does not make it a bad book but it does make it a bit of a Frankenstein, an unholy bolting together of different ideas and forms, therefore difficult to come to terms with.
The first two-thirds of the novel owes much to the heritage of British kitchen-sink dramas of the 1960s, such as Alan Sillitoe’s The loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. The central character Michael is cut adrift from society, workless, almost friendless, futureless, until he meets Lee, a young girl. She’s also on the fringes of society but has connections, an uncle who runs a low-rent brothel in Manchester, where Michael gets a job as a doorman.
What Habit does very well early is build up the idea of mainstream, acceptable society, throwing up barriers against those it deems unworthy. Everything for Michael and Lee is shown as being within limits, all options are restricted for the characters. The writing reinforces a sense of claustrophobia, of hopelessness that will continue into the future, ‘Rain came in and a dog outside stood on the pavement looking in like it wanted to come out of the rain. I remember crying then because I just wanted the inside of me to stop for a minute so I could breathe.’
McGeagh keeps up a restless energy that is immediate and concise, he is trying to re-examine, re-work the scenes that we pass every day but do not give our attention to, ‘The girl spits on the pavement but i can’t see where it lands because the ground’s wet from rain.’ Occasionally he goes a little too fast and you’d rather he finished his thought process before moving onto another point. But for the most part it works well.
There’s a sense of being inarticulate in a world that demands speech or, perhaps worse, only knowing the wrong words. Michael cannot find the right things to say, so largely remains silent, Lee talks constantly but struggles to make herself understood. Although this can be problematic at times, with the dialogue sometimes feeling a little repetitive and stilted, the characters’ rage, anger, directed at anyone and everyone, is forcefully communicated.
However, then the twist comes. What Michael thought was only a brothel turns out to be something else entirely. The final third of the novel suddenly becomes very dark indeed, bloodstained and disturbing. It becomes (a somewhat heavy handed) metaphor for drug addiction and the ills this can bring.
One gets the sense that this final third is what McGeagh wanted to write, with what preceded it retrospectively filled in to give the concluding action some depth. Unfortunately this prelude is actually the more engaging bit of the novel. You wish he’d stuck with this line, this social realism, instead of descending into a quasi-horror story, which would probably have worked better as a short piece.
That’s not to say the last part of Habit is bad, McGeagh’s writing is still mostly excellent, he retains an ear for localisms, there’s still a good pace and feel for internal characterisation. But it’s so different from the opening that by the time your brain has begun to process it the novel has come to all too abrupt an end. You’re left thinking “if only”. If only he’d persisted with the down-to-earth grittiness, instead of flights of fancy, then perhaps Habit could have been an important new text on the fractured social nature of modern society, on those ignored and left behind.
Habit was published by Salt Publishing on 15th October 2012.
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Review by Joseph Surtees