SOMETIMES a book comes along that is so egregious one struggles to think of anything positive to write about it. Even the worst duds usually have a few redeeming features. After finishing The Goose Samaritan, however, I knew this review would be hell to write. Some critics enjoy slating a work. For most of us, however, it is a thankless task. Perhaps out of some misguided sense of compassion, I am always more lenient with debutants. But in this case – with a heavy heart – I’m making an exception.
The author’s note at the back of his novel describes PM Heywood as a changed man. He spent thirty years working in finance in London but has now moved on to calmer pastures and a more solitary, less moneyed occupation. His writing is “undefined by genre…he is inspired more by the elegance of language and the roundness of a tale, and, though his stories will vary greatly, the richness and dedication to their telling will not.” Heywood is confident, which is no bad thing. But his novel refutes all of these assertions. The Goose Samaritan is a tedious generic romance; the story is only round because it involves a wriggling tour of the Scottish Highlands; and as for Heywood’s style, clumsiness abounds.
Even his most innocent sentences are unwieldy. Here’s an example from early in the book. Richard Playfair, the protagonist, is about to be shown his seat at a dinner party: “I immediately knew whom, unchecked, it might be arranged I should be sat with at dinner.” Here’s Heywood writing about a Scottish island: “An unimpressive eyot of negligible thrall described a soft but barren sea-thrust pock.” And, finally, here’s Richard either talking about himself, or possibly someone else: “Like a draught of bromide on my effervescent ardour the flagitious libertine was quieted.” What makes this mess worse is that Richard is a pedant. He likes to point out other people’s grammatical mistakes, yet his creator can’t insert a simple comma for clarity’s sake, revels in double-negatives, and muddles his tenses.
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That’s the distasteful flesh. What of the bones of the story? Richard works in the city of London. He is smug and fusty and unhappily married. When his sister Joanne moves to a village north of Inverness, he takes a holiday to visit her (he is “startled,” we learn, “by the northerly extent of Scotland”); he wants time away from his other half. At yet another dinner party — you’ll be sick of eating by the end — he meets David Lorie, a “minor landowner” and part-time farmer. David finds out Richard has some spare time and asks him if he would deliver a batch of dead geese to his customers, who all live in various remote locations. Live geese would have been funny; dead geese are just food. Nevertheless, Richard senses excitement and adventures and sets off for the wilds in “Stephen” (a car name which ranks alongside Robert and Brian for mundanity) A pattern emerges on the road. Richard knocks on a door, gets invited in, eats (again), does a good turn, and is fulfilled for a while. After the fourth or fifth customer we are begging him to leave just one damn goose on the doorstep and drive off. As for Scotland, Richard is somewhere between smitten and overawed (the Isle of Skye, however, is “dated”). His trip ends in Glasgow, a “supremely Scottish” city. But no matter where he is, Richard is always thinking about love. Romances can go one of two ways: the guy either does or does not get the girl. For Richard, several girls come and go, and Heywood guides us through the drama with expert schmaltz and sentimentality.
So, after all that, we’re back to our search for positives. As one says of a child, PM Heywood has a wide vocabulary. “Presbyopic”, “nivener”, “blatted” and “sempiturnity” all had me reaching for the OED. One of John Updike’s rules for book reviewers is never to spoil the plot. I’m going to break that one, in search of two more good things. The finale is wonderful. On the last page Richard starts thinking about all that has happened to him and comes up with this gem: “Implausible reconstruction of an id so buried had occurred in an improbably condensed abbreviation of time.” That had me in fits. Then, after three hundred and seventy pages, Heywood finally writes something terribly good: “The End”.
The Goose Samaritan by PM Heywood is published by Mercer Books, priced £9.99