Back in the mists of time, Bloomsbury very kindly sent me a set of Barbara Trapido’s novels – which featured in a Stuck-in-a-Book’s Weekend Miscellany back here – but somehow I’ve only just got around to reading the first: Brother of the More Famous Jack (1982). I’m afraid the title remained a mystery to me to the end – they do mention that it is in reference to W.B. Yeats, but I’d never heard of Jack Yeats (is that the point?) and I couldn’t see why the title had been chosen… anybody able to enlighten me, do pop your answer in the comments, please.
But that’s by-the-by, really, because I was very impressed by Brother of the More Famous Jack. It is, although I hate the expression and usually hate the genre, a coming-of-age novel. That phrase always makes me shudder and think of ghastly books like The Catcher in the Rye (which we didn’t much like as a whole, remember?) but Trapido’s novel is much better than that. We see Katherine start off as an ingenuous eighteen year old, thrown into the maelstrom of the Goldman household. And since the novel is in the first person, we feel thrown into it as well. Eccentric, forthright Professor Jacob – a ‘creative and inspired grumbler’ – his kind but sharp wife Jane, and their six children (especially Roger and Jonathan, competing at various points throughout the novel for her affection) provide a world of which Katherine has no experience. They are in turns enchanting, frustrating, and bewildering – for the reader as much as Katherine. Katherine herself it is difficult not to like, if only for this: ‘I reverted, as I do in moments of crisis, to rereading Emma, with cotton wool in my ears.’ A sound course of action for anyone, I think you’ll agree. At the same time, Katherine is not a wholly endearing character – more an empathetic one. Watching her grow wiser, we understand rather than adore Katherine.
And aside from the characters, Oxford is often a star of the novel. Although a country bumpkin like me is captured more by the descriptions of the Goldmans’ rural estate, I must admit to being won over by this depiction of Oxford, as experienced by Roger Goldman: Oxford was a place of magical cobbled lanes which led to the sweet-shop. It was a place where tea came with strawberries before the peal of bells for Evensong, where Grandmother, in a Pringle sweater and thick stockings, took one to watch punters from the bridge over the High Street, and where one went through doors into secret gardens with high stone walls. He never came to see it as a place afflicted with too much trad and old stones. He was not, as I was, embarrassed by the idea of privilege. He described to me with an almost hol joy the journey he would make from the railway station, past the litter and grot beside the slime-green canal, past the jail and on into St. Ebbes towards the ample splendour of Christ Church. The middle section of the novel, where Katherine heads off to Rome and a volatile relationship with a jealous Italian, is less successful and at times a little wearing. Trapido is much more successful when back amongst the Goldmans – my only quibble about them is that all their names begin with J. With Jane, Jacob, Jonathan, John and all the various appellations therefrom, it did get a bit confusing… I suppose it was deliberate, and with ‘Jack’ from the title being conspicuously absent… I don’t know. Another potentially interesting angle about which I require enlightening.
Like many of the novels I enjoy, Brother of the More Famous Jack is more about character and style than it is about plot – which makes it difficult to describe or recommend successfully. So I suggest you just pick up a copy and give it a go. It’s not my favourite novel this year and it isn’t cosily enchanting or anything like that, but I might just be inclined to agree with the blurb which claims that, with this novel, Trapido redefined the coming-of-age novel.
Books to get Stuck into:
Dodie Smith – I Capture the Castle: I’ve never actually blogged about it, but this is THE quintessential coming-of-age novel – and the only one before Trapido’s that I’d ever enjoyed. Funny, wise, and I’m even prepared to use the word ‘enchanting’.
Angelica Garnett – The Unspoken Truth: fiction, but heavily influenced by her own life, these four stories evoke the same ingenuousness amongst wry bohemia.