Review: Kidnap Fury of the Smoking Lovers
He’s got an impressive pedigree, Pete Benson; Guardian Fiction Prize, Betty Trask Prize, the Whitbread, the Somerset Maugham Award. First published in 1987. Twelve novels, other writings.
My first encounter with his work happened a few years ago, when I was on my way to St Helena and half-arsedly planning a (to be aborted) book about Britain’s last remaining colonies and I read his A Lesser Dependency, about the largely forgotten atrocity committed upon the Chagos Islanders by successive UK governments.
I was struck by the book’s fluency and anger and lyricism and disgust and it’s bivouaced in my head ever since so reading his latest, the essentially gentle and sweet-natured Kidnap Fury of the Smoking Lovers (great title), came as something of a surprise; a surprise, but not a disappointment.
He’s become underrated. Of course he has; He’s straight and white and middle-aged. He lights up no tendentious demographics. So it – in a society enthralled by momentous marketability – goes.
Anyway. We begin in Broadstairs, where Fargo Hawkins is the young gardener to the butcher Harry Swaine – ‘Beat Our Meat’ – who owns Hyde Hall and is more porcine than his prize-winning sausages.
He’s a monstrous man portrayed not without dark humour, with a touch of the Hilary Briss.
His beaten wife, Anne, absquatulates with Fargo, thirty years her junior, and takes us on a chase narrative, road trip, vengeance-will-be-done kind of caper, a tale comprised of more ingredients than those in the genetic map of Anne’s mongrel Radar, who she takes with her, because ‘what did matter was the impulse of love’.
For the most part, it’s deftly done, especially in the depiction of the intimacy between Anne and Fargo, this mismatched pair; essential stuff is left unspoken, suggested through acute detail and hint.
There is a moment of physicality between the two that is coyly, brilliantly portrayed in a kind of extended euphemism: ‘if that picture looks like a picture it’s not because it’s a pillow and a song or a ferry, and take that ferry and come back from the island where the rocks grow and sit in that chair if you want but don’t get comfortable because I’m falling for you’.
This is an almost Objectivist tic of Benson’s which recurs just the right amount of times and I find it quite beautiful.
Harry employs a PI, Derek Muir, to track down the elopers.
Derek is part of a national network of spooks and spies that he calls on and the extended cast of these secondaries and ancillaries cries out for closer editing, especially in the figures of Abi and Bert who could, and should, have been elided into one.
Nor do I see the necessity of withdrawing Derek from the narrative, even if his forced substitution is obviated by blackly hilarious happenstance, like a Robin Askwithian 70s sex comedy gatecrashed by Aileen Wournos.
Nor do we need Ray Craske. I take the point – that the tabloidy, curtain-twitching, sanctimonious and judgmental nosey-parkery of the British public is dismayingly prevalent – but this book is not mimetic; indeed, it’s almost cartoonish in its approach and texture.
Benson’s evident joy in and fondness for story-telling and words themselves ‘that roll across her lips like a special tongue’ perhaps needs taming somewhat by the imperatives of technique.
And it is, in essence, a joyous book.
The conclusion possesses a type of deliverance and redemption which lifts and expands; why this needs to take place at RS Thomas’s house above Porth Neigwl (unnamed, but easily recognisable) I don’t know, but it somehow fits.
Such are the mysteries of story-telling, as baffling and beatific as love between two ostensibly oppositional people, or the fidelity of a mongrel dog, or even in ‘eyebrows like panic in a wire factory’.
He can write, Pete Benson. We’re lucky that he continues to do so.
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