Filler content with gifts

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #36:-

NICOLO’S GIFTS

Neil Ayres

Bluechrome pb, 273pp, £7.99

reviewed by Peter Tennant

This release from new kid on the block Bluechrome is certainly a nice piece of merchandise, with generous layout and appealing line drawings by Kathryn Thorpe, but what about the story?

Nicolo is the son of a British mother and an Italian father. As a child living in Mexico he bears witness to how outsiders are often treated, looking on as disabled children are bullied by others, an event that comes to echo Nicolo’s own end. As a young man he works in Italy at his uncle’s gift shop, but his heart yearns to travel and he is afforded the opportunity to do so as a Mafia courier, an escapade from which he barely escapes with his life. Nicolo throws in his lot with Pavel, a young man from Russian Karelia, and the two travel together, eventually ending up in Turkey, where Nicolo meets and falls in love with British backpacker Sandra. The three of them go back to the UK together, Sandra resuming her career as a teacher and Nicolo following various odd jobs. Eventually they marry, but then Nicolo contracts a debilitating illness. Interwoven with this are the complementary stories of the other people in their lives, Pavel and his career as a wildlife photographer, Sandra’s best friend Alice who is unhappily married to comic book artist Matthew, and so on.

This is an ambitious book, attempting to take in all of life, but also one that is flawed. My first problem has to do with the actual writing. Reading this I get the impression that the author is acutely conscious of his prose style and perhaps trying a little too hard for effect. Each sentence seems to have been fashioned with an eye on the need to avoid cliché, and sometimes the results are quite stunning, with a phrasing that seems to capture perfectly the experience he is describing or throw new light on familiar subject matter, but equally there are many moments that disrupt the narrative flow with formulations that seem needlessly contrived when something simpler would have served far better. Nor does the writer seem particularly comfortable when dealing with action sequences, resorting to a fast forward approach every time these are necessary.

My biggest problem though is to do with the structure. Ayres is at his best when dealing with ordinary events and emotions. He has a gift for getting under the skin of his characters and making them come to life, capturing both their virtues and vulnerabilities, with events such as the break-up of Alice’s marriage and its effect on the children, the relationship between Nicolo and Sandra, Pavel’s attempts to deal with his homosexuality all portrayed in terms that are both savagely real and deeply moving. As a mainstream novel of character Nicolo’s Gifts might have been wholly admirable, but instead attempts are made to produce something more ambitious than this, a book that casts a wide net, a sort of uber-text complete with add-ons from folklore and world literature, so that every so often the narrative flow is disrupted by mock-Aesopian fables, tales within tales that are intended to illuminate events but actually have the opposite effect of distracting from the main story. Elsewhere we have plot strands that never get developed to a logical conclusion, are simply mooted and then forgotten. We never learn why the Mafiosa’s wife gave Nicolo the address of a police station to deliver stolen art to, or the name of the illness that destroys his life, or indeed what exactly his gifts are. At various intervals throughout the book mention is made of Connor, an up and coming musician (and Ayres is superb at capturing the joys of live performance). Connor commits suicide, but his parents are unhappy with this verdict and so the detective agency Nicolo works for is hired to investigate, after which we hear absolutely nothing more about him. Life is, of course, full of such loose ends, but I can’t help feeling literature should be a bit more self-contained.

The failings of ambition are the easiest to overlook, but I believe that if an editor with the talent to match Ayres’ vision had been entrusted with Nicolo’s Gifts and worked with him something truly remarkable could have been produced. As it is, what we have is a possible blueprint for excellence rather than the thing itself.

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