Grim up north: Talk of the Town by Jacob Polley

This review was first published in Notes From The Underground.

It’s grim up north. And Jacob Polley knows it. He opens his debut novel opens with the sentence: “Town stinks.” Chris, the novel’s 14-year-old narrator, then elaborates on the odour’s composition, perfectly and succinctly dumping his audience in the middle of dirty, industrial, crumbling Carlisle. Readers are lugged by Chris through the cluttered homes of the town’s residents, along its grey streets and into neglected parks littered with teenagers and tramps. Excitingly, Chris’s reach extends even further, to the surrounding villages and the countryside which, with its boggy marshes, is just as unwelcoming as the urban sprawl.

But Polley knows there’s much more to the north than the grimness. He knows that the people who populate Carlisle have fascinating stories to tell and, moreover, a distinctive way of telling those tales. So the author adopts a demotic voice that sparkles on every page. It captures expertly the characters’ thoughts and words, as if they are not invented by a writer but rather have steamed from the chimneys over the “bicky factory”. All Polley seems to have done is drag them down from the groggy air above Carlisle and paste them onto the page. It is a towering achievement. Never once is it self-conscious or contrived (which it could so easily have been); the triumph of the novel’s form is that it both subverts and celebrates English.

In fact, Polley records an entirely new vernacular, a feat not unlike that of Russell Hoban’s in Riddley Walker. In this way, he elevates this novel’s setting above 1986, the year in which it is set, to another time. Such is the distinctive power of this language that Talk of the Town exists in 1986 and some undefined, post-apocalypse, dystopian future. To some extent, this perfectly characterises countless post-industrial northern towns, especially those that were unable to scratch out a new identity for themselves in the late 20th Century. Carlisle, like many other crap towns by the end of the eighties, was left hollow. Only a coarse residue remains in its core.

It is this through which Polley wades with Talk of the Town. The novel tells a simple story about Chris, a young lad who, on the last day of the summer holidays, is worrying about the disappearance of his closest friend Arthur. Chris begins his search, which leads him to, among others, local “gorilla” Booby Grove, his menacing buddy Carl ‘The Black’ Hole and gobby Gill from down the road. Chris is alone in his search; he never pairs up fully with any other character. This makes him seem worryingly vulnerable as he slips into Carlisle’s more dubious corners, home to frightening foes and adult worries. Talk of the Town is definitely a coming-of-age story – but not in a rosy, nostalgic way. This is Chris waking up to the harsh realities of living in a crap town where there is little to do except sniff hairspray, tease tramps and make choices with heavy consequences: “Sometimes yer do summit and yer dunno where it’s gonna land yer, says Gill… But yer never know before it comes if it’s gonna be a good change or a bad change. Yer just know that doin this thing’ll change the most stuff round the most.”

Here is Polley’s final accomplishment: he has managed to regale an adventurous story with dazzling language and a crisp, poetic insight. Through this book Polley’s success is secure. Let’s get everyone talking about it.

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