Holding | Graham Norton | 2016 (6 October) | Hodder & Stoughton | 320p | Review copy | Buy the book
The town of Duneen exists peacefully in a quiet corner of Ireland but the surface calm conceals decades of emotion, bubbling below the surface in the hearts of several of its inhabitants. It is the job of Sergeant PJ Collins to watch over the place and until now he hasn’t really been troubled. He spends his days sitting in his squad car, waiting for something to happen that doesn’t, his weight increasing at a constant pace thanks to the hearty meals of his eager-to-please housekeeper Mrs Meany. He remembers life here when he was a boy, he wasn’t fat then, but it was easier to use his growing weight as an excuse to separate himself emotionally from his neighbours. These days, some people might roll their eyes at him as PJ squeezes his bulk in and out of his car, but PJ rises above it, waiting for the day when he’ll prove his worth to the town and to himself. And one day it happens.
The discovery by builders of human bones puts the town into a lather of excitement. Nothing like this has ever happened before. While PJ grabs this opportunity to shine with both hands, the discovery brings out the worse in others – gossip, gossip, gossip. But for some of the women of Duneen, it is as if their lives have been ripped apart as they are confronted by their cruel memories. Rivalries and passions that have been buried for decades awake and PJ Collins, to his surprise, is caught in their torment and, rather ironically considering the circumstances, he comes alive.
Holding is Graham Norton’s debut novel and it is a pleasure to read. A fair few have expressed surprise that Norton should have turned to gentle crime for his literary debut but, in my opinion, Holding reflects the author’s warmth and charm perfectly. The rural Irish setting is a fine place to spend some time and the dialogue and quiet stories of its inhabitants feel natural and real. There are times when Graham Norton’s humour and wit come to the surface but for much of the time the novel presents a quietly beautiful account of a community’s hidden crisis.
With the notable exception of PJ Collins, who is impossible not to like, the focus is on a small group of women – the three sisters who look after each other in the town’s grand house, an unhappy wife who finds comfort in a bottle of wine, a housekeeper who is driven to care for others. To PJ’s astonishment, he finds himself drawn into their lives and he is changed by it. You can hear in the background the chatter of the other townspeople but our attention stays focused.
The mystery unfolds gently and its revelations don’t set out to shock us with their unpredictable twists (the claim of so many novels these days), instead they are emotional and sad, their impact long lasting. Interwoven throughout are the memories of these characters and they contain moments that are devastating. There is nothing here to disturb people beyond the confines of Duneen but for those who have lived in the town for many years it will be shocking.
I loved Graham Norton’s writing and his fine grasp of character. He paints here an old-fashioned world I’m not familiar with, in which it feels as if living alone happily is a choice no right-minded person would make. This is a traditional place of marriage and parenthood, even if the perfect ideal is an illusion for many. We are given glimpses of country life – such as the fete – but Graham Norton’s attention is on people rather than location. I would have enjoyed more description but I won’t complain about what I was given instead.
Reading Holding was a pleasure. It’s gentle, sad and, most of all, compassionate. There’s nothing gritty here. There might be bones but there’s no blood. I felt that this novel did me a great deal of good to read, refuelling me as I continue to climb my TBR mountain. I’m already looking forward to reading Graham Norton’s second novel. He has the makings of a fine storyteller.