Put simply, this is one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. If I could have given it six stars, I would have, without question.
I was interested to read in the afterword of the stunning new Parthian edition of Stan Barstow’s enduring classic that David Collard (writer, researcher and critic) described Vic Brown, the novel’s narrator, as a “largely unlikeable hero.” I could not disagree more, despite the remainder of Collard’s essay being earnest and fascinating. I found Vic Brown to be one of the most likeable, genuine, sincere, decent, heart-warming, moralistic (despite natural flaws – age, inexperience, lust), and respectable narrators/young lads to ever tell me their story.
Vic makes mistakes; huge mistakes in the grand scheme of things, but they are neither malicious, criminal, or premeditated. In fact, I found myself feeling profoundly sorry for Vic Brown. Here is a young man with his whole life ahead of him, his dreams intact, and ambitions of building a life that he can enjoy whilst making his family proud. He ends up pursuing Ingrid Rothwell, his workplace crush, and manages to impregnate her at the first attempt in a park fumble after dark. The way Barstow handles such an intensely sensitive issue between two young people, whilst maintaining an utterly believable sense of place and dialect, is remarkable. Working class novel craft at its very finest.
Of course, this novel is very much of its time; Vic, in order to save face, has to do the right thing by Ingrid morally, despite knowing that he doesn’t love her. He’s not had the chance (as a virgin) to go out in the world and have his pick. An act of young (and some would say innocent) lust has stolen a huge part of his future away from him, though Ingrid (rightly so, most would assume) acquires the sympathetic spotlight. It’s really a pull on the heartstrings – a debt to Barstow’s grip on the stark realism that he presents.
What Barstow also does brilliantly is create characters that spark visceral reactions. I felt frustrated at Vic throughout the novel, but couldn’t help but love him. Ingrid inspired sympathy, but her apathetic dimness and refusal to stand up to her appalling mother infuriated me. And there, I’ve said it….her mother (Vic’s unfortunate mother-in-law to be) is a BITCH, though her husband is such a thoroughly reasonable, sensitive, decent chap. Vic’s Dad is much the same, though his Mum is mostly cold, yet fiercely maternal. Reading this was so intensely cinematic to me; a testament to a novelist at peak power.
This is a novel that not only defines a whole generation, an entire era, and a very specific part of England, but also juggles what it means to be from a certain social class or background with the harsh realities of societal expectation. Barstow captures the very essence of a northern, working class voice in Vic Brown. The dialogue is spectacularly real, the places gritty and four dimensional, and the plot terrifyingly universal – we all know someone that has experienced this, though it may be hidden in plain sight. That’s what the best writers do, isn’t it – tell us our own stories with such honesty and compelling wisdom that we realise that the Vic Browns and Ingrid Rothwells of this world are actually us?
I didn’t want this book to end. If you want the most human of stories told with ultimate authenticity, this is for you. If you want warm, compassionate, reflective, thought-provoking – this is for you. If you want a novel that will keep you emotionally engaged, then this is for you. ‘A Kind of Loving’ is such a sad title, really, though it also inspires a certain hope – hope that one can make the best of their lot, despite obstacles that lie in the way.
An inspiring, beautiful, evocative read. Absolutely superb writing.