Christmas Shopping is upon us, and I daresay some of you started some months ago, stirring the pudding back in March and planning the Christmas card list last Boxing Day. For the less organised amongst us, any ideas for presents are probably very welcome – and I’d like to push one under your nose for the bookish person in your life. Or perhaps you’d like to push this under someone else’s nose, since you’re the bookish person in their life.
I also have an AA Milne quotation for every occasion. Well, I can’t remember exactly how this goes, but something along the lines of: “Every critic instantly assumes that, should a writer be able to make his audience laugh, he secretly wishes he were making them cry”. Milne didn’t always love his critics, but the point is that we shouldn’t underestimate the comic writer – I think it’s much more difficult to make readers laugh than it is to make them cry, and a comic novel done well is a wonderful thing.
Step forward Jane Gordon-Cumming, and A Proper Family Christmas. I was worried people didn’t write books like this any more. Don’t get me wrong, I love pensive, slightly depressing, high-literary fiction more than anyone – Virginia Woolf is one of my favourite authors, after all (though she is incredibly funny, I must add) – but where did novels go which gently laugh at human nature and the tangles they get themselves in? Thankfully Jane G-C has written one such novel, and I know you’ll love it.
William lives by himself in a rambling old house, such as are only found in fiction – well, I say alone, he actually lives with a rather wonderful cat called Scratch. You can’t go wrong with cats in fiction – they’re such amusing and characterful creatures. Anyway, William is an obstreperous old man, but one you can’t help loving. Despite his best efforts, every member of his family descend on his house for Christmas – his forthright siser Margery; widow Hilary and her attractive teenage son; neurotic Lesley and Stephen with their spoilt child Tobias and put-upon nanny Frances; scatty Julia and innuendo-flinging Tony with worldy-wise daughter Posy and flirty nanny Shelley; arty Leo who seems to be perpetually ignored by all; charmer and antiquities expert Oliver. Phew, think that’s everyone. What a cast! Despite a lot of characters and a lot of names, like one’s own family one never gets confused. They all have their place and, like them or loathe them, you can’t help being quietly fond of each and every one.
This novel is definitely a character piece – throw together a lot of disparate and amusing people, and a few Wodehousian plots, and see what happens. And what happens is a witty and touching romp through the intricacies and politics of a family Christmas. If you don’t recognise it all, you’re lucky, but you’ll love it nonetheless. A perfect Christmas present for someone who loves something to read on Boxing Day, just so long as they can’t recognise themselves in its pages… and best not give it to anyone called William, Leo, Margery, Lesley, Stephen, Tony, Shelley, Tobias, Posy, Julia… at a pinch Frances, Oliver, Hilary and Daniel will take it as a compliment…