Prodigals

John Sutherland

  • A Prodigal Child by David Storey
    Cape, 319 pp, £7.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 224 02027 7
  • The Prodigal Daughter by Jeffrey Archer
    Hodder, 447 pp, £7.95, July 1982, ISBN 0 340 27687 8
  • Ralph by John Stonehouse
    Cape, 318 pp, £6.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 224 02019 6
  • The Man from St Petersburg by Ken Follett
    Hamish Hamilton, 292 pp, £7.95, May 1982, ISBN 0 241 10783 0
  • The Patriot Game by George Higgins
    Secker, 237 pp, £7.50, July 1982, ISBN 0 436 19589 5

David Storey’s new novel begins with a brief prelude reminiscent of The Rainbow’s, tracing the historical mutations of a locality from its natural to its urban (here 1930s) condition. The theme of the novel has other evident similarities with Sons and Lovers. Both deal with the emergence of artistic talent from working-class fetters. But in the way that he has chosen to tell A Prodigal Child, Storey defies Lawrentian precedent. The novel suggests, rather, that he is aiming to synthesise his play and novel-writing practices. The marrow of the work is in its dialogue – a dialogue which is largely constrained by the terse naturalism of Yorkshire dialect or the limitations of refined middle-class speech.

The action extends from around 1925 to 1939. Superficially, then, A Prodigal Child is a historical, or at least a period novel. But Storey evades the usual requirements of the genre. He supplies virtually no historical markers or colouring in his narrative. Were it not for passing references to film stars in vogue and for the German bombs that fall at the end, the reader might find himself in some perplexity as to date. This can hardly be accidental. In earlier novels, Storey has shown himself a richly descriptive scenic writer. The blanked-out background here seems a strategy designed to sharpen focus on the central drama.

That central drama is itself stark enough. The Morleys (he is a farm labourer, she a shrewish but good wife) move to a new house and a new life on the Stainforth estate. They have two children. Alan inherits his father’s energies and stupidities; the other son, Bryan, is gifted and has talents which he apparently owes to neither parent. Through visits to the farm where his father works (other Lawrentian echoes here), Bryan meets Fay Corrigan, the coquettish younger wife of a complaisant local businessman. This good fairy adopts him, takes him to live in their superior part of town, and sends him to a private school where his artistic abilities can flourish. Obliquely, we gather that she wants him, eventually, as her lover. The story ends with wreckage, as Bryan and Fay (the long-suffering Mr Corrigan has died) sit through an air-raid. Exactly how the hero progresses from this desperate situation the novel leaves unsaid. A coda, flashing forward to 1953, explains the title. Bryan is now a painter of reputation, with a talent which a recent reviewer has termed ‘prodigal’. He has returned to home ground for the Coronation street-party (now, it seems, hitched up with Margaret, the farmer’s daughter he played with as a child). But despite the feasting, this is not a prodigal’s return. ‘I mean to go on,’ he says.

At the heart of this engrossing novel there is something left deliberately inarticulate. Storey’s narrative paces its perimeters, but never penetrates. Take, for instance, the last encounter between Bryan and his father, who confesses, over a pint of beer:

  ‘I always thought we ducked out.’

  ‘From what?’

  ‘From raising you in the way we should. That we all ducked out. We should have known better.’

  ‘If we did,’ Bryan said, ‘it’s over now. We can make,’ he added, ‘a fresh beginning.’

  ‘With something missing,’ his father said.

  ‘We can still go on without it,’ Bryan said. ‘Even if,’ he added, ‘we know it was there in the first place.’

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