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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review

Isobel Ashdown
Paperback: 344 pages Publisher: Myriad Editions (17 Sep 2009)
ISBN-10: 0954930975
ISBN-13: 978-0954930974

Holly Howitt

There seems to be a trend for nostalgic, set-in-the-not-too-distant-past novels, films and TV series recently, from Ashes to Ashes to the reprise of Fame. However, these forays into the past of only a few decades ago can often give a misleading impression of history, and dwell too much on in-jokes about pop stars and fashions that are now risible, often to the detriment of the story itself.

Glasshopper leaps on this trend, being set in the 1980s. In fact, the name Glasshopper is in fact taken from a mispronounced line in Kung-Fu. However, despite being a bit trendy, Glasshopper is masterful in not making silly guffaws at jarring past fashions, apart from making one or two relevant mentions about topical sweeties and films. Glasshopper is narrated from two first person voices, both Mary, who spans the past in her flashback-like narration through the 50s, 60s and 70s as well as the 80s, and her son, Jake, a 13-year-old rooted in his reality of 1984-5. His home life in turmoil since his parents split up, Jake becomes the unwitting head of the family, despite only being 13, cooking for his younger brother and cleaning up his mum’s sick. Jake’s narration, possibly because of this, is the stronger of the two sets of voices, talking in simple but arresting metaphors like "the salt ‘n’ vinegar heat inside a noisy pub". Occasionally, he sounds too much like a wise old soul to be a real 13-year-old, but then we must remember he has spent perhaps too much time around his often drunk mother and her terrible mood swings to be a ‘normal’ teenage boy, whatever that is.

He is not without intelligence of an intellectual kind, either: he is also very good at Classics at school, although that could be something to do with the nascent crush on his teacher rather than pure academic skill. Mary’s narration, which is often disjointed, remembers key scenes in her childhood and young adulthood, putting her sons’ births into context, and giving the reader an insight into how her relationship with Bill, the boys’ father. Her narration is often more introspective and introverted compared to Jake’s honest account of the reality of living without a father, getting a job in a paper shop and dealing with getting locked in a "Snog Room" at an awful New Year’s party.

The plot is deftly woven, bringing in an aunt who Jake has never met, and with her, cousins who Jake feels an affinity with, despite having never met them before his mother and aunt’s reunion. Perhaps because of this important reunion, Mary vows to clean herself up, and the plot leaps on to explore a reconciliation between Jake’s parents. But, of course, you have to be careful what you wish for…

For a relatively fat novel, Glasshopper is easily readable in a short time, the plot never too tight for comfort, and the narration never too arcane. Jake is drawn boldly and ebulliently, and while the plot is not exactly unpredictable, by the end of the novel it becomes clear that whether the reader has guessed what will happen or not isn’t the point.

© Holly Howitt October 2009 – author of The Schoolboy

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