I had a few thoughts when I began reading this novel that weren’t necessarily connected with how well I liked it. One was how much male writers and critics love coming of age stories, at least if they’re about boys. If they’re about boys, they’re literary fiction (hence the James Tait Black prize win). If they’re about girls, they’re women’s fiction. Take Philip Roth, for example. He’s written the same novel over and over, and back at the turn of the century, he was the only writer who appeared twice in Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best Books of the 20th century. This coming of age novel was one I read for my James Tait Black prize project.
My second observation was more personal. In the beginning of the novel there is some joking around between 15-year-old Simon Crimmons and his friends. Now, I know that at this age a lot of things are said between boys to impress each other, but I found the way they talked about girls disturbing. I actually asked my husband if when he was this age, boys talked this way, and he said no. But he would have been about ten years older than these boys at the time these scenes are set in 1973. Everything they said was so objectifying, it’s no wonder young girls have image problems.
Anyway, Simon is nearly 16 at the beginning of the novel and wants to quit school and get a job. His father owns a fleet of trucks, but Simon can’t work for him until he is 18, so he ends up accidentally applying for a railroad job. His parents are very much against his quitting school, but he is headstrong. Another title for this book might be “Adolescents Making Poor Decisions.”
Simon seems to be a grounded individual who knows who he is, but even as he is getting sexually involved with his girlfriend, Nikki, he meets Alexander and Varie Bultitude and is fascinated by them. They are the teenage children of the area aristocrats, and they seem much more fluid in nature, trying on the hippie look of the times. Simon and Alexander have books and music in common, but we get the sense that to Alexander, Simon is just a way to spend time while he’s home from school. Simon and Varie, on the other hand, have little in common. She’s interested in horses, geology, and the occult. But she is beautiful and he’s fascinated by her.
Much of the novel is about class. Simon complains once that he is too middle class for his fellow railroad workers and too working class for the Bultitudes. Varie is surprised to find he lives in the largest house in his village, and she mistakes his mother for the gardener. His parents have worked their way up from the working class and are dismayed to see him going back down.
Warner seems to have captured the banter of the railway men and the dynamics of small-town Scotland, remote Scotland, too, where they are nearly at the end of the railway line.
I became more interested in this novel when it moved away from Simon’s school friends, especially the frightful Galbraith, to the working world of the railroad. However, I wasn’t much interested in the adolescent obsession with sex.