I’ve got a wee soft spot for Andrew Cowan. He’s currently a Creative Writing professor at my old university, UEA, and his debut novel ‘Pig’ was one of my favorites for a good while.
I decided to jump back into his stuff earlier this month, and started with ‘Your Fault’ which has a sparkling review from another UEA alumni, Emma Healey (author of ‘Elizabeth is missing’ and ‘Whistle in the Dark’): “Beautifully crafted, unsettling and vivid.”
Sorry guys, I didn’t like this one.
The structure of the book is interesting – each chapter representing a new year for the life of little Peter. We join him at barely three years old, and his memories and thoughts are retold by a much older Peter, who is seeing the events anew and coming to terms with some of the less palatable aspects of his childhood.
It was very unusual to have the novel written in second-person narrative – I’m not sure I’ve read a novel structured like this, ever. Simultaneously Cowan appears to be older Peter addressing younger Peter, and Cowan addressing the reader. It’s not without flaws, but it does show a particular technical daring.
We’re revisiting a small post-industrial English town (much like the one in ‘Pig’) which is told with expert realist detail and feeling. Through this novel you are transported to a working-class town in the 1970’s, with each nostalgic object and experience laid out for you – however, this slows the pace to such a degree that although it’s a compact little novel, I still found myself hurrying towards the end.
Peter’s father is violent, and a great deal older than his mother, who chips away at his self-esteem with veiled comments and actions: “Oh, why must you spoil things? Every time you must spoil things”. Peter struggles with the existence of his sister Lorraine, injuring her eye almost accidentally, tries to sabotage his parents marriage by leaving out porn mags, and steals his father’s knee surgery gristle to take into school.
The most noticeable transition of Peter’s character over time is the reality that all children must face some day – that their parents are flawed individuals. From that moment, life feels less safe, their actions slightly tainted, their lives opened up to you beyond that of being your parent. Peter realises this of his father when he’s forced to leave the new puppy outside: “You are crying, though not because of the puppy – which will surely now perish – but because of this confirmation of your father’s inadequacy, his failure ever to be the kind of father you want him to be, that either of you want him to be.”
We are taken on a journey through the life of Peter, privy to his new moments of understanding when it comes to time passing, societal expectations, sex, failure, disappointment, etc. But through all of this, he remains a child until the twist at the very end which brings a swift end to that still-somewhat innocent era.
As far as coming-of-age stories go, ‘Your fault’ is a great literary contributor to the genre. But as far as my enjoyment of the plot or the characters goes – I felt like it could have done with some extra ‘story’.