My rating: 2.5/10
I’m a sincere J.B. Priestley fan, so this rating and following review pain me greatly. I’ll try to get it over with quickly, so I can put the book away (far away) and not have to look at it and be reminded of my disappointment.
It’s 1960-something, and 35-year-old economic historian Tom Adamson has just buried his mother in a Sydney, Australia graveyard. Tom is by birth English, having come to Australia as a toddler with his embittered mother and wee sister when his actor-artist father suddenly abandoned his family back in the old country.
Raised to scorn his absent parent, Tom has had a disquieting experience when, in her last days of illness, his mother hints that there was some sort of mystery as to why Dad cut all ties, and a deeper reason behind it all.
So Tom takes leave from his job as a Colonial Economic History professor at the local university, flies to England, and proceeds to seek his father, whom he feels is still alive (he’d know if it weren’t so, our author assures us, Tom being apparently blessed with some sort of superior filial intuition) and perhaps yearning for his long-lost son.
Tom falls in with a ne’er-do-well cousin, who in the intervals of between hitting Tom up for substantial “loans” of cash actually proves fairly useful in providing introductions to people who can give snippets of information regarding Tom’s elusive father. We meet a vast array of potentially intriguing characters – a seedy private enquiry agent, a senile noblewoman, an elegant European jetsetter (with whom Tom has an ultimately unsatisfying sexual escapade), various actors, artists, writers, pub-owners, ex-lovers of the father, ex-employers of the father, fellow workers of the father’s numerous jobs – an immense cast of secondary characters, and each one as sketchily portrayed and forgettable as the last.
I’ll tell you what Tom discovers, to save you from plodding through this thing for yourself. (Consider this your spoiler alert, though that very term implies something suspenseful or exciting, which is far from what occurs in the book.)
Turns out that Dad’s letters home were suppressed by a jealous lover – he’d really meant to return to his wife at some point but said lover maneuvered weak-willed Dad in a different direction. After failing at reaching success as either an actor or a painter, Dad enlisted in the army, fought in the 2nd World War, came out to a dismal civilian life, passed dud cheques, served time in jail, changed his name, and worked at a series of progressively less rewarding jobs until Tom finds him slaving away as an underpaid waiter in a South Devon hotel.
There is an underwhelming reunion, notable for its über-masculine soberness. Tom promises to set Dad up with an annuity and a new life in London, with the intimation that one of Dad’s old girlfriends who still carries a torch for the ineffectual but generally decent old guy will step in to provide female companionship.
Tom himself has found a love interest in a 25-year-old book editress, and the two find they share a sniffy dislike of the way English society is sliding into chaos – beatnicks versus the old guard – and decide that the happiest future shared career will be in working for the U.N. In a more developed part of the world of course: “(D)oes it have to be Ghana or Cambodia or Ecuador?…Couldn’t we make it Austria or Thailand or Mexico, my darling?”
It’s an Old Country fails to live up to expectation on every front. The plot is boring. The characters are strictly cardboard – even our “hero” Tom fails to come across as multi-dimensional in any way, shape or form. The dialogue is stilted. The style throughout reads like a first draft, a mere roughed-out outline without any living detail.
Even Priestley’s “big idea” – a reliable trope with this author is his inclusion of an intellectual motif to each book – is vague and understated. In this novel, the gist seems to be that the youth of the day are sloppy and unambitious, a bunch of guitar-playing beatnicks, but perhaps that’s to be expected after the way the elder generation has mucked up the world with its wars and class divisions, and that the old guard is overdue for toppling. The “old country” – England, and also its colonial partner Australia – is fixed in its downward spiral – time for a forward-thinking man (that would be our Tom) to abandon ship. Hurray for tradition, it’s been swell but it’s over, see you later.
There are tiny glimpses here and there of the author’s true potential – micro-episodes and lonely glistening, gliding phrases – but so few and far between that they merely serve to remind the reader of how much better this book should be.
One could charitably excuse the absolute flatness of this dull, dull novel by maintaining that after over forty years of plugging out work after work after work the author was scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting old and tired. How then to explain the excellence of the book before this one, the quite stellar Lost Empires, published in 1965? Two years shouldn’t make that much difference. We know the man still has it in him, so where is it here?
It’s an Old Country is a hack piece, trading on the author’s good name, an underwritten, too sparse yet plodding novel that should never have made it to print.
In my opinion.
Over and out.