If it is possible to use the term ‘old fashioned’ about a debut novel without its being in any way a castigation then this first fictional outing by Celia Reynolds is just that, a good old fashioned romantic novel which left this reviewer reaching for the Kleenex on more than one occasion. It is solid story-telling, too, in clear and uncluttered prose, without so much as a microgramme of saccharine to spoil or cloy the taste. Well, maybe one or two. But we are talking microgrammes.
The eponymous Henry of the book’s title is an eighty-five year old ex-serviceman and former language teacher who is planning to catch the train for Edinburgh to tie up some of life’s loose ends. But as the cover blurb of the novel alerts us ‘There are no ordinary journeys.’ At the station he suffers a nose bleed and there he is helped by Ariel, a young woman also bound for the Scottish capital and also very much on a mission.
Their lives are thrown together from this moment on, in a world where the notion of there being seven degrees of separation seems to be one heck of an overstatement. Try one degree, at most two. For also on the train is Travis, a jazz saxophonist who is going to meet his Elvis impersonator uncle Frank in, you guessed it Edinburgh, and his destiny is also skewed in a particular direction from the moment he strikes up a conversation with Ariel. Travis has chosen a musical path despite his father’s wishes, choosing Coltrane over capitalism. But unwittingly he is on a trajectory that will take him home and to an awkward reconciliation.
Meanwhile, it helps that our hero Henry is one of those perfectly avuncular old fellows, a bit doddery but still powered along in his eighties by a love he felt most powerfully a long, long time ago when he was thrown into the orbit of Francine, a waitress in Blackpool he met in the Tower Ballroom, and pretty much stayed there for the rest of his life. Sadly their briefly burgeoning love affair comes to an abrupt end when Henry is deceived about her reputation by one of his fellow squaddies, consigning him to a life of “what ifs” and gnawing regret.
There is confidence in the story-telling here that belies Reynolds’ beginner status – she is a recent graduate of the Groucho Club’s Complete Creative Writing Course – and the filmic quality of the novel owes something, one imagines, to the quarter of a century she spent in the movie industry before returning to her native Wales. In writing such an achingly poignant and affecting story about love and trains one naturally reaches for comparisons with David Lean’s 1945 tear-jerker ‘Brief Encounter.’ That film’s title certainly echoes the way Henry’s life is shaped by the brief blurt of time he spent with Francine before being cruelly duped before burning the little piece of paper on which she had written her address.
While Henry’s journey and indeed his personality is the presiding spirit of the book, there are plenty of epiphanies and revelations waiting in store for Travis and Ariel, and, indeed for some of the minor players along the route, even as the novel opens out its focus to take in a bustling New York City as well as venturing deeper into Henry’s past and the fateful connectedness of people. Henry has learned a good many things during life’s journeys and occasionally writes them down as little mantras. The world, he avers, ‘Veers constantly. At once creation and calamity. A miracle and a marvel. A sliver of glass to the heart. An invitation to never stop being amazed. It doesn’t stop calling. Not if we’re willing to listen…’
It was the great Graham Greene who maintained that the true writer must have a sliver of ice in his heart, or be able to dispassionately dole out the pain to his or her characters, and thus to the reader. Conversely, Celia Reynolds proves that it’s also possible to be a true writer with just a little warmth in one’s heart, which can then be readily communicated to the characters, who then live with you during the reading, and then live on thereafter.
I won’t spoil the ending other than to say it’s tenderly and beautifully choreographed in a simply heart-string tugging book that offers a ready escape route from these testing times. Get in the tissues. And maybe an extra box.
Finding Henry Applebee by Celia Reynolds is published by One More Chapter, costs £8.99 and can be bought here.