Katharine D’Souza – “Park Life”

(December 2012 – e-book version kindly sent to me by the author)

Quite a few of my friends have this book, and I’ve been pestering them to borrow it when they’ve finished. Doing so on my friend Ali’s blog gave rise to an email from the author offering me an e-book copy of the novel to read. How could I resist, when it’s a book set in the area of South Birmingham in which I’ve lived for seven years?

Set beautifully in Kings Heath, Moseley and Birmingham city centre, we’re in Mike Gayle, Claire Morrall or Christine Coleman territory here, with this fairly gentle story of ordinary people and their life events: events which could happen to anybody, but are well described in a warm narrative that draws you in and makes you want to read to the end.

We meet the accidental neighbours, Craig and Susan, one passing through, one drifting through life. Susan has finally found the courage to flee an unhappy marriage, and is pondering where it all went wrong, reading back over her teenage diaries to try to get a sense of who she is. Craig is essentially selfish, drifting on a surface of office banter and gym one-upmanship. Both are redeemed by new ideas of family and responsibility. Middle-class knee-jerk liberalism is skewered perceptively but kindly, and relationships between sons and mothers particularly well portrayed, and I have to say that I loved reading the bits set around my home patch, but would have found this engaging and endearing enough without that aspect (bah to the publishers who said people wouldn’t enjoy a book set in South Birmingham. Are there no literate people in South Birmingham to buy it anyway?).

I found the descriptions of the area very accurate, and this comes from a fairly unforgiving reader who once threw a book across a room when it had a character get on the No 11 into the city centre (dear, non-Birmingham readers, the No 11 famously goes all the way around the city in a big Outer Circle). I liked the not-quite-positive mention of the Bull, and of that statue sitting on the steps in Victoria Square. Even more exciting was when a pendant from a shop from which I’ve bought jewellery made an appearance! But, I must stress again that the descriptions had an inner validity which means it doesn’t matter whether or not you know the area. The trees, the parks, all real in their own right as well as descriptions of actual places.

The writing is simple, clear and on the whole it’s well-written (I would have liked more commas, but I’m an editor and comma nut, and it was still perfectly readable – “on the whole it’s well-written” is high praise from picky old me). There are lovely little twists, like this passage:

“Mallards and Canada geese were the only live wildlife I could see, although an urban safari of giraffe print pram blankets and leopard spotted T-shirts adorned some of the passers by.”

and the voices of the different characters were differentiated well. So that’s two things which can be an issue in first novels (that awful habit of describing a scent, a sight, a smell, a feel a sound … and again … and the voices all being the same) neatly side-stepped, and I’m looking forward to more from this author.