This is a brutal, beautiful book, squalid and sublime. Benjamin Myers lifts a stone off the world and finds underneath everything that is rancid and squirming - humanity decomposing to mush - but also a hard shining diamond of resilience which will not be crushed or dulled or contaminated by the surrounding cess.
John-John is a young man recently released from prison. Haling from the travelling community but ostracised by it, he has nowhere to go, neither family nor friends, and he sets about rebuilding a life on his own. Dumped at a grotty flat in a run-down area of town, John-John gets himself a job and buys the meagre necessaries of life. He is independent, determined, guided by a clear personal compass of right and wrong. His spirit and his moral integrity shine like beacons amid the deprivation of the estate, the drugged-up and boozed-up, the dealers and louts and layabouts and thieves. There were times when John-John’s world seemed so heartless, sordid and bleak that I had to put the book to one side. It seemed impossible to me that he could survive, that he wouldn’t fall into the abyss of the darkest of dark sides.
John-John isn’t well educated although he has taken every opportunity for self-improvement that HM prison has afforded. He has been dragged up, beaten up and banged up. Life has not treated him well. And yet he is good; good with a resolute inner core of decency. And he is likeable. His character and his situation have shades of Billy in A Kestrel for a Knave and also of David Copperfield. They are all innocents abroad in a world which is uncaring and cruel. But they are not infected by it; indeed they make the utter hopelessness bearable.
Intertwined with John-John’s story is his mother’s, told in the second person, addressed to John-John (an unusual and difficult approach but consummately pulled off here) the reader discovers John-John’s story; his bare-knuckle-fighter father, his abused mother, John-John’s own place in the dysfunctional Wisdom family.
The story is set in the north-east of England, presenting an anachronism of extreme poverty in all its forms - economic, emotional, urban, moral - and breath-taking beauty. The countryside is simply splendid; a vast canvas of moors and hills, pastoral farmland, wild coast. All this Benjamin Myers portrays through the eyes of his protagonist in language which is soaring, apposite, cringingly vivid. He uses local dialect. Some readers might struggle at first with the idiom but be patient. The voices of John-John and his mother are authentic. They resonate. They imbue the text and the story with blistering, toe-curling truth.