Monday, 17 February 2014

The Confusion of Karen Carpenter by Jonathan Harvey

What I love about Jonathan Harvey’s ‘The Confusion of Karen Carpenter’ (and it was the same with his first, ‘All She Wants’) is how he makes it look easy. His lead characters and narrators in both cases chat along breezily, taking us into their confidences from the very first, and it’s like our best friend telling us everything that they’ve been up to, and all the mortifying things that have happened to them. It’s bright and immediate and funny – and sometimes I think people don’t realise how hard it is to get that right. Harvey makes it look like he’s simply turned a tap on, and out stream these garrulous and funny voices.

Karen is a wonderfully self-deprecating and disaster-prone character. We soon get used to her ramshackle way of carrying on. Apparently abandoned by her tube train-driving boyfriend of many years and saddled with an up-to-the-minute mother who’s moved in with her (she’s forever streaming Scandinavian detectives on her laptop and dashing out to Zumba), and various not-very helpful and mostly lesbian friends, she careers haplessly between places she doesn’t really want to be, such as an excruciating supper party for naff swingers, or the funeral of the mother of a pupil from her school. I love the way Karen gets buffeted along by the tides of her life, never quite in control. There’s a reason for that, of course, and about two-thirds in we get a blinding twist and revelation that I only saw coming the very instant before it came (which is exactly how it should be, I think.) It’s a good one, well-seeded in the narrative, and makes sudden sense of everything that comes before in the novel, leaving us questioning our easy acceptance of her ingenuous, believable voice.

I won’t spoil anything here, but I’ll say that it leads to some lovely, quite moving sequences as Karen comes to terms with the things that have been confusing her.

I really liked ‘All She Wants’ but this feels even better to me. The comedy’s wonderfully knockabout and vulgar – especially the revenge-Brazilian waxing episode. The sentimentality feels justified and the pathos rings true and all the secondary characters jump into vivid life – especially Mum being disreputable all over the place with her Danish toyboy. But the comedy of situations like this is always balanced by things like the portrayal of Karen’s Dad, who knows what’s going on, it turns out, and has had to put up with worse in the past. It’s the quieter, more rounded characters standing next to the brasher, noisier ones that bring Jonathan Harvey’s novels to life for me, and who make it feel like a world he’s building, and one I want to go back to.

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