13-year old Jake’s mother is an alcoholic wreck. Her husband, Jake’s father has recently given up and moved out, while her eldest son, Matthew, has absconded entirely. The question that emerges is whether these two events are the cause of her dysfunction or whether that is the fruit of seeds sown further back in the past.
Mary’s story from 1957 onwards is told in a narrative that alternates with Jake’s which is set in Portsmouth in 1984. Her future is bright until she makes a choice that estranges her from her family and life becomes a struggle i.e she becomes downwardly mobile and joins the working class. The depiction of her life during the 60’s and 70’s, while difficult, actually brought back fond memories for me. (On the basis of this I would say that life on the southern coast of England wasn’t much different from life in Lancashire at that time. Apart from the pebbly beaches of Brighton, of course. There be sand in Bispham!) Authentic period details are skillfully woven into the fabric of the story – not simply dropped in as lists to prop up the atmosphere. For example, the street parties of the Queen’s jubiliee in 1977. Who doesn’t remember them? Ashdown sets a pivotal scene at her street party – one which goes a long way to explaining Mary’s misery.
Difficult as Mary’s past is, it’s a doddle compared to Jake’s turbulent present. The young lad, in the face of adult abdication of responsibility, is doing his level best to hold things together for himself and his younger brother. Happily there are brighter moments for him: a teacher who inspires an interest in Greek mythology and a shopkeeper who offers him a Saturday job, a friendship and a dog.
As the two narratives join, there is an unexpected reprieve. Mary emerges from her alcoholic stupor, a reconciliation takes place with her sister and her husband and the family begins to move forward. They celebrate with scampi and chips in the local and their first foreign holiday. And, at this point, well-kept secrets from the past emerge to …. oh, that would be telling …. but what a climax!
A section of this novel won the 2008 Mail on Sunday Novel Competition. The judges were Sir John Mortimer, Fay Weldon and Michael Ridpath. I think they chose well. Grasshopper is an absorbing read although the frequent time jumps are initially confusing. That is, however, a minor quibble. The voices of the two narrators ring true and the main characters are complex human beings. Subsidiary characters add colour – sometimes black (Matthew, Gypsy, Mary’s parents), sometimes white (Mr Horrocks, the dog Griffin). This adds texture and there is plenty to discuss. I think this would make a great book group read – in fact, I’m going to recommend it to mine.