Pining for the past


There are better candidates for the role of a modern-day Job than Duncan Neville, but his luck isn't wonderful all the same. Duncan, the protagonist of Widows and Orphans (Arcadia, £14.99), Michael Arditti's ninth novel, is an earnest, good-hearted chap suffering largely for being out of kilter with his time and for never escaping his father's imposing shadow. He's a dreamer, a do-gooder, the sort of man the world tends to chew up and spit out.

A newspaper-man in a time when newspapers no longer matter as they did - and in a grimly declining seaside town to boot. With an ex-wife remarried to a husband of less cerebral mould, and a churlish, perpetually embarrassed, teenage son, Duncan devotes his time to campaigning - rather feebly - to save a decaying pier from becoming a stag-night atrocity.

Add in an impossible mother, an array of dissatisfied employees, a rapacious developer, an ineffectual priest negotiating something of a crisis of faith, and a love interest with no shortage of problems of her own, and Arditti presents a merry cast of characters for this rather nostalgic portrait of small-town English life.

Not a great deal happens, and what does transpire runs to small dramas. But plot is not important here. The book is about life not turning out as promised, about hope, spirituality, the acceptance of disappointment, and about everyday trials and insignificant pleasures.

Enjoyable and diverting, Arditti's prose is engaging and his material is studiously observed, particularly in the passages about the declining fortunes of Duncan's beloved paper. And although the prevailing tone is bittersweet, the descriptions of contemporary concerns and preoccupations that baffle Duncan are grimly comical.

Widows and Orphans is a pleasant read; perhaps not a book you will remember forever, but certainly one that entertains while it lasts.

Moving and astute, it's a novel for anyone who has ever flicked through the paper and failed to recognise the country they're reading about.

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