A is for Angelica by Iain Broome

Engaging, unusual, and strangely funny (as you will see from the quotes), are all terms which describe British author Iain Broome’s impressive debut, A is for Angelica. Written in alphabetized chapters (such as Valentine, Vicious Circle, and Zero Tolerance), this frame story centres on Gordon Kingdom, a now unemployed middle-aged man who is the full-time caretaker of both his incontinent elderly dog, Springer Spaniel, Kipling, and his wife, Georgina. 18 months earlier, Georgina had a stroke, and thanks to Gordon’s obsessive care, she was recovering, but now she’s been hit with another stroke and a crisis looms.  Then Gordon’s attention shifts to Angelica, a free-spirited, outspoken woman who moves into number 23, Cressington Vale.

a is for angelicaIf you take a look at the cover, you’ll get a sense of the book. All those identical little houses lined up perfectly with nothing out-of-place, and that’s how Gordon, former coordinator of the Neighborhood Watch committee would like his street, Cressington Vale, to be, and while the cover not only reflects the structures of a neighbourhood, with its bird’s-eye view it also reflects Gordon’s spying. He keeps notes on his neighbours which then form files, and these alphabetized files are hidden up in the spare room and taken out and added to at appropriate moments. As a leftover from his old Neighbour Watch days, Gordon still keeps a file called “Suspicious Behaviour,” mostly about neighbours and the more bizarre inexplicable things Gordon sees them doing–”incidences” as he calls them:

It started the day I caught the vicar’s wife masturbating with the blinds open, her full-length mirror tipped at an unfortunate angle. In truth, he’s not really a vicar and she’s not really his wife. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness. She’s his bit on the side. I thought about slipping a note discreetly under the door to stop it happening again, but I decided against it. Besides, she should have known better. She’s older than me. After that, I found myself sitting by the window for hours on end, surveying the street. Letting the world drift past. Taking my mind off things.

Is there something wrong with Gordon? Probably. But since I’m not a therapist, I’m not going to try to put a label on this engaging character. We know that at one point, Gordon was gainfully employed, but now as Georgina’s full-time caretaker, he’s grown obsessed with the details of his ever shrinking world. Advised by the family doctor to keep notes on Georgina’s progress, Gordon has written an entire manual, but his obsession has spilled over onto the neighbours, and perhaps because he no longer has much a life of his own, he spies on the lives of others, on the opposite side of the street, “where the action is.” Gordon explains that his notes (and by extension his spying) have given him “structure, purpose and something to do.”

Narrated in a very simple fashion by Gordon, this novel’s strength is not found in beautiful, elaborate sentences but by Gordon’s delightful voice and refreshing world view, and the way the novel’s clever structure follows Gordon’s very literal, detail-oriented mind.  Through Gordon’s eyes, Cressington Vale comes alive with its various characters, including Don Donald, a man who lives alone since his wife ran off in 1984, the overworked NH Doctor Morris, a “suspected paedophile,” beleaguered by false charges and under siege from the demands of a large, brand new practice, and Judy, the clueless, well-meaning vicar. Gordon’s obsession appears to shift from Georgina and spying on the neighbours in general when Angelica moves into the neighbourhood. Suddenly Angelica with her painted fingernails and odd coloured gloves becomes far more interesting than everyone else combined. However, while Gordon is able to keep Don at a safe distance when it comes to Georgina’s care, it’s not so easy to dissuade Angelica from getting involved. She’s very direct, and doesn’t have much time for people who dissemble. 

Gordon’s narration goes back and forth in time, so we see Gordon and Georgina’s wedding, the newlywed Gordon and Georgina first moving into their new home armed with bright hopes for the future, and Gordon conducting a Neighbourhood Watch meeting he’ll never forget. While Gordon’s life is marred by tragedy and regret, this is by no means a depressing read, and the humour is to be found in Gordon’s unintentionally funny view and explanations replete with Gordon’s signature attention to detail:

Reverend Benjamin Christopher Gregory moved to Thailand eighteen months ago. He was marrying a young couple when he broke down in tears and had to be escorted from the altar. He came back minutes later, walked up to the best man and head-butted him square between the eyes. Soon after, someone sprayed graffiti across the side of his house and a picture appeared in the local newspaper of him sat on his doorstep, smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey from the bottle. He had bright red paint behind him, giant letters on a white pebbledash wall. It read ‘arsehole’. One word. No hypen.

Both medicine and religion fail Gordon in different ways, and while Gordon’s visits to the doctor could potentially be depressing in Gordon’s inability to ask for help, instead these scenes are replete with gentle humour:

Doctor Morris has a notice board stuck to the wall behind his desk. I stare at it while he pokes and prods me. It’s covered in leaflets and information booklets. A mixture of colours and slogans. Do this. Eat that. say no. Don’t be caught without one. 0% interest free credit. Buy one, get one free. There are six anti-smoking posters. They make me want a cigarette and I don’t even smoke.

Author Iain Broome shows, with both gentle humour and poignancy, a great deal of generosity and compassion towards his characters. Broome’s Gordon is both unique (which makes him interesting to read about), but also flawed. He’s focused so squarely and minutely on Georgina’s care that he’s lost all sense of balance. Caretakers share, by proxy, the diseases and illnesses endured by the ones they love, so while Georgina suffers from another stroke, her husband Gordon absorbs the fall-out: isolation, depression, and the heavy, relentless burden of 24/7 care.

Her life taken. My life too. Our life together. If I think about it long enough I start to get resentful. I start to blame Georgina. She could have done something differently. Spent less time at work. Spent more time with me. Even now, watching her sleeping, her eyes closed, her face devoid of colour, it’s hard to understand.

While the narrative appears to focus on Gordon’s observations, along with risk factors associated with various acts and recommendations, it’s the space in-between these details that leave intriguing gaps for the reader to interpret. Although the novel spins on its plot for a brief moment concerning the Angelica development, I loved this wonderfully fresh, engaging first novel which tells the tale of an average life of quiet desperation. Iain Broome is a very talented young man, and readers out there…  this is your chance to get on at the ground floor.

Review copy

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13 Comments

Filed under Broome Iain, Fiction

13 responses to “A is for Angelica by Iain Broome

  1. As I have expressed before I really like these character studies especially when the characters are quirky but realistic.

    I think that I know a few real life folks like Gordon.

  2. What a praise!

    It’s intriguing and I like the quotes.

    “He’s focused so squarely and minutely on Georgina’s care that he’s lost all sense of balance. Caretakers share, by proxy, the diseases and illnesses endured by the ones they love, so while Georgina suffers from another stroke, her husband Gordon absorbs the fall-out: isolation, depression, and the heavy, relentless burden of 24/7 care.”
    That’s so true. We tend to focus on the pain of the person who is ill or ageing but forget about what impact it has on the lives of the persons who take care of them.

  3. I loved your review Guy! Got me impatient to find out what will happen next, and what is the role of Angelica in all this. This change in Gordon seems quite plausible to me. Often, when we get sick or take care of someone, we tend to become meticulous and observant, maybe against our wish, of little details in our room, or house. Extending it & developing it over time, as Gordon has done, seems realistic. I also liked the humor, laughed a couple of times reading the quotes :)

    • Gordon is a priceless character, and I’m glad you brought up ‘plausible’ because I forgot to mention that I found him to be very real. When I was a child I can remember one of the neighbours tut tutting about something they’d seen someone else do, and someone asked how on earth she saw that. She replied that if she got up on a chair and pulled out her binoculars, she had a great view of the neighbour’s bedroom. The way she said showed that she thought what she was doing was perfectly normal. Gordon has become so isolated that what he does seems very plausible, and there’s a scene post stroke (the neighbourhood watch meeting) that shows you what Gordon was like when he was so-called normal.

      It was easy narrowing down quotes as there are so many great ones and I wanted to give a sense of Gordon’s complexity.

      Anyway, a wonderful first novel and I hope you can find it in Lebanon.

  4. This is something for me as well, I’m sure.
    That cover is quite scary. The book sounds like an interesting take on obsession. Being the full-time caretaker of someone who is ill must drive you slightly mad. I find this actually a very topical choice of theme.

    • I think the role of the caretaker is underappreciated as we all tend to focus on the one who is ill. I was once around a couple of people and the husband had Alzheimer’s. She seemed to get it by osmosis. I wondered if this came about because she could no longer hold a sustained meaningful conversation with her spouse. Her mind too seemed to fray very quickly.

      You’d appreciate this Caroline.

  5. This fresh kind of storytelling really intrigues me – thanks for bringing this author to my attention Guy.

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