Are You With Me?

Are You With Me?, Stephen Foster, 2007: 0743275489 (Blackwell’s,,

I never expected one of my reviews to get a review, least of all a review from the author of the book I was reviewing. It was a good review, too: he said that mine was the best review he’d read, and he sent me a copy of his second novel as a way of saying ‘thank you’. At the time I thought that ‘best review’ meant ‘review penetrating deepest into the mind of the author and his intentions in creating the work’. I’m not so sure, now – he might just have meant ‘review that says the nicest things about me’ – but either way, I am in his debt to at least the extent of another review.

It took me a long time to get round to opening the book. Not just the sense of obligation, but a simple fear: would Stephen Foster, like Donna Tartt and Salley Vickers, be one of those authors who ought to have got run over before publishing their second novel?

I needn’t have worried. In AYWM, Stephen Foster attempts something far harder than he has tried before, and he pulls it off. Reading it, you have the sense of trust that you get when you are in the hands of a master. And yet… there is something about the book that makes it feel as if someone had taken a Rembrandt and put it in a plastic clip-on frame. But I’ll come to that later.

Tom Radford is 15. His father has died in a road accident and his mother has moved from South London to a cottage in Norfolk and of course taken Tom with her. The bulk of the story covers their first few months there, adjusting to the darkness at night, the lack of shops, the smell coming off the fields, the ten towering wind turbines (never more than nine of the sails working at once); and of course the people. Tom finds his feet at school and in the village, works out whom to respect, whom to hang out with, whom to avoid… and above all, Tom starts to become Tom.

This is not a plot-driven book, in the same sense in which Babette’s Feast (say) is not a plot-driven film: the plot is not the point.

Adolescence is impossible to write about. Like a quantum entity hesitating between being a wave and a particle, an adolescent isn’t in a state intermediate between two states (childhood and adulthood) but in both states at once. It’s a delicate mixture that risks being destroyed by the very act of measuring it, of writing about it. It’s like trying to capture a smoke ring in a bottle and expecting it to be a smoke ring still.

Stephen Foster approaches the task with strict rules and extraordinary discipline. Although, formally speaking, it is a nearly-19-year-old Tom that is the narrator, there is no hindsight or self-judgement. The reader becomes 15-year-old Tom so completely that at a couple of points in the novel it’s necessary to insert an adult’s point of view (Tom’s mother’s, and the school photographer’s) as a kind of reverse-angle shot, just to show us how things look from outside Tom’s head. The rule-following is strict: when Tom talks about a friendship that is doomed to fade through distance, there is no hint that in the end that friendship will not only not fade but will turn out to be the only thing that endures. When Tom (keeping his head down, hanging out with the people who will let him hang out with them) finds himself in the back of a stolen car, on the way to a beach where it will be set on fire and filmed, there is not the slightest hint that this might be morally wrong. Tom will discover in due course – and we with him – just how wrong it was, and how this one incident will become a key to the whole story, tying together past and future.

There is a lot of tying together in this book, and it gives it an almost musical quality. A catchphrase marks a  friendship; its modulations reflect the shifting nature of the friendship; at the end, its reversal marks the reversal of the power relations with that particular friend. The stolen car turns out to be the only link of its owner with his dead father; the death (in an unconnected incident) of one of the thieves is the catalyst for Tom’s discovery that friends can die as well as fathers, and so for his liberation from a paralysed stage of mourning.

But describing these things in a review is also like trying to bottle a smoke ring, so I’ll stop. I’ll only add that one of the attractions of the austere rules that Stephen Foster has set himself is that even the smallest detail speaks volumes in the silence. With one of the tangential characters (but no-one is ever truly tangential) Tom’s entire conversation consists of six one-word sentences and a stick of chewing gum, but over the length of the book their relationship is heartbreaking: it has enough emotional impact for a an entire play. Tom’s text messages with his distant friend Milo – typically, two-word micro-poems with pictures attached – not only depict their friendship with accuracy and economy but also show how texting has created a completely new way of maintaining intimacy at a distance. Security, in the end, is having someone you can say tb to.

So – with all this mastery even down to the tiniest brush-stroke, why isn’t AYWM a masterpiece? Or rather, why is it a masterpiece in a white plastic frame?

The refreshing thing, as I’ve said, about Tom’s narrative of his own adolescence is that it doesn’t reflect or assess, it just narrates: so the experiences grow in the reader’s mind, and if the reader chooses to reflect or assess, it’ll be his own experience that he’s reflecting on. The exception is the second chapter (Chapter 1, because there’s a Prologue). I can see why Stephen Foster thought it necessary to connect Tom-the-narrator with Tom-the-narrated, both who he is and why he’s telling the story now – what the significance of it all is – but to me the whole looking-over-relics-of-the-past thing just clunks. I’m not interested in 19-year-old Tom the narrator. I’m not interested in his remembered Citizenship lessons or his elaborate excuse for knowing the story of Tom Sawyer and the fence. The whole thing sounds portentous and clever and self-conscious and all the things the rest of the novel so wonderfully isn’t. I hold on to the hope that Stephen Foster didn’t think of this himself but that someone told him it had to be put in. Put it in or we won’t publish, perhaps. I hope that’s what it was. There is really no need to spell things out for us: we’re about to be so hypnotized by the writing that there’s no way we’re going to put down the book after 30 pages because there wasn’t a clear explanation of Why You Are Reading This.

The other awkwardness comes at the end of the book. It’s at the point where the narrative has to change gear, to leap over a couple of summers, to take Tom through two years of being a reclusive teenage chrysalis, then out of Norfolk and into North London, where, in a period of non-time spent doing a non-job, all the themes of the novel reappear, modulate, interact, and drive Tom back to a final visit to Norfolk and from there to a truly magical conclusion.

This was, obviously, going to be difficult, and it turns out that there’s something about that North London segment that (for me) kills everything. Perhaps this is intentional. Filling in forms, signing up for a course, thinking about “contact hours” instead of helping to shoot foxes – you might argue that this is an unreal existence and so it should seem unreal when you read it. I can’t quite be persuaded of that. To me, something about the whole segment feels too much like fleshed-out bullet points. It’s still well written and well observed (and there are some classic Foster expository inner monologues, such as the swimming pool segment) but – well, either I’ve missed something or there’s something missing.

The worst of it is, you can’t simply cut out the offending pages, because the themes are reappearing and interacting and being seen from a different perspective, and it’s still a joy to see it happen and it’s still necessary to the plot, but…

Well, enough complaining. If this were a mediocre novel I wouldn’t be bothering to whinge.

Perhaps if North London hadn’t been so grey then the final image that signals Tom’s escape back into reality wouldn’t have been so moving:

I note a strange vision in the rear-view mirror: ten sails of a wind farm all rotating at the same time.

Can one say of a book, “I’ll come back to it again and again and each time wish I didn’t have to”? If one can, is that a good review or a bad one?

I think again of the musical structure of the whole novel. I think of the visual images: the beach at California, Norfolk; the Edward Hopper-style buildings; the ruined people in the ruined house; the reappearing red Corvettes; the wind sails. And I think what a beautiful film this would make. So little will need explaining; so much can be shown. It would be a masterpiece.

And what better way to warm up for the next novel?