I heard Kate Clanchy read an extract from her novel Meeting the English at an event last year. The section she chose made me laugh so I was optimistic that I would enjoy the story very much. And I did. Set in the summer of 1989, a time of momentous change and a year I remember well, it tells the story of young Struan and the culture shock he encounters when he leaves Cuik for London.
Struan is taking his Highers when we meet him. He has a place at uni to study dentistry the following year, but right now has some time on his hands. His enthusiastic English teacher suggests he applies for the position of carer to Literary Giant Philip Prys. Struan has plenty of experience caring for the desperately sick and dying, even at his young age. He’s not entirely sure about London, but it ought to be an experience at least.
The family he encounters in Hampstead certainly are an experience. Philip needs a lot of looking after, but actually he’s the least of Struan’s problems. There are two Mrs Prys’ to deal with; one takes a dislike to Struan, the other is just a bit too enchanting. Philip’s children bring their own challenges. Jake resents and looks down on Struan, appears and disappears on a whim and manipulates the rest of the family. Juliet is a sweet thing but struggling to assert her own independence and come to terms with herself. Add in a supporting cast of characters and you have yourself a coming of age story with added comedy.
I loved Struan, and Juliet. They are both growing up, but in very different ways. Struan is old before his time; too much responsibility too early has made him very mature in some ways but naïve in others. His lack of interest in drinking, sex, and general messing about baffles Juliet. At sixteen, her interest in all these things is acute. I took my GCSEs in the summer of ’89 too, and sympathise a lot with Juliet. Revision, exams, friends, jobs, boys, The Future – yes, these were all crowding in my mind too. Despite falling out with her mother, uncertainty over her exam results, and an anorexic best friend, Juliet remains remarkably cheerful. Spending time with Struan benefits the both of them.
Struan experiences the most dramatic change, as his eyes are opened to different ways of life. He’s not at all convinced it’s better in London, but it does him good to get out of his home town for a while. His teacher Mr Fox amused me; his earnest, missionary zeal for helping the poor insular folk of Cuik is painfully funny. That condescending attitude to anyone not from the metropolis is even more pronounced in Jake. He’s an obnoxious brat, but Struan even finds some genuine sympathy for him. I liked that even though the characters tend towards the grotesque or carnivalesque, they don’t tip over into monstrous. They are given histories, thoughts, and emotions that allow them some redemption.
There is no great mystery to solve or plot to unravel in Meeting the English. It is the story of one young man, one family, and one summer. Plenty still happens, but this is small-scale drama, written with warmth, wit and humour. I had a great time reading it, being reminded of all the events big and small that happened that year.
Thank you to Picador for sending me an advance copy of this book. It is published 9 May 2013 in Hardback.