29 June 2018

Review - Gamble by Kerry Hadley-Price

Cover design by The Cover Factory
Kerry Hadley-Price
Salt, 15 June 2018
PB, 181pp
Source: Purchased directly from publisher

I'd been looking forward to Gamble ever since I spotted it in the Salt catalogue, having loved Hadley-Pryce's previous slice of self-referential noir, The Black Country (review here). And it didn't disappoint. It is though one of those books I can see is going to be hard to review. These are - for me - books which, in spite of enjoying immensely, are tricky because they are in some sense perfect. They are the ultimate distillation, the essence, of what it was the author was trying to convey, so that any attempt at a summary or a discussion  only seems to detract. I'm sure there's an idea in mathematics or computer science about an object that can't be compressed any further because it is, itself, the most compact representation of itself. It's like that.

Anyway, enough waffle, to Gamble. This is one weird book. To begin with the obvious, the voice is like nothing I'd encountered before. It has a narrator, yes, and that might be an omniscient, third person narrator, - but it's hard to tell. The book describes teacher Greg Gamble's past actions, thoughts, and feelings in a generally third person way, but it frequently cuts away, as it were:

"He'll say he felt all his thoughts hardening off..."

"That's what Gamble will tell you"

or even more pointedly

"He'll say now..."

It's as if there is a kind of filter going on. At the same time as being reported on, Gamble is, we sense, being informed on, being judged. What do they mean, all these "He'll says"? Do they imply that Gamble will, if pressed, deceive? Or that he has reflected on his life and is now prepared to admit things he couldn't face at the time?

And if there is deception, how deep is it? Is Gamble misleading us about the plain facts of what happened - did any of this story actually happen, at least any of it not witnessed, not involving, another person? Or is he misleading us about his attitude, his thoughts, the interpretation he placed - then or now, whenever now is - on all those moments documented in this book? Because they are documented, in exquisite detail but also (because of the foregoing) absolute obscurity. This is the story of a middle-aged man with regrets. A selfish, solipsistic, man who seems not hostile, not resentful, but simply bored with his wife Carolyn and daughter Isabelle, to the extent of almost withdrawing from their lives until, perhaps, some crisis call on him to "perform".

At the same time he seems ever ready to pay attention to young women, especially young women who are his former pupils. He seems possessed almost of an adolescent attitude, a smouldering anger and tendency to act up (there's lots of smouldering in this book, it's a very smoky book with Gamble's indulgence in smoking almost a badge of rebellion - both against his family and humdrum life and also, perhaps, the illness that it is hinted is gnawing away at him). And there is that youthful self-centredness, inability to consider the consequences of his actions for others. (In one place he rejoices that a young woman he fancies appears "uncareful"). All conveyed in delicate, telling detail which is sometimes (Gamble being the kind of man he is) quite hard to bear. In short I think that Hadley-Pryce has completely nailed a certain sort of character - let's be honest, a certain sort of man. In one sense merciless, exposing him at times as very unpleasant, she's isn't - and the reader won't be - completely devoid of sympathy.

That is, of course, assuming you come to the conclusion that Gamble - if he is in some sense controlling the narration - gives you a sort-of accurate account of what happens. "He'll say he just needed - needs - someone to talk to. Just to talk". So we are told at the end of the book. Is the reader that someone? If so, can they rely on what they are told, or is it just Greg Gamble? He's tricky, that one. "There would have been an argument. But he had - has - a way of sounding sincere when he needs to..."

This book is heavy on contagion, on taint, Gamble exults, after one encounter, at having been tainted, something also expressed in his smoking or the way he seems to glory in the dank, oily waters of the canal. Given the remarkable sense of both closeness and distancing that the text achieves, it's a taint the reader finds hard to avoid: "He felt he was an expert at using and manipulating language to stroke this girl", "He'll say he thought he deserved her.." [my emphasis] - how creepy is that?

In some ways a distinctly uncomfortable read, this is nevertheless a book that must be read. Its prose will ensnare and entrap and it will leave something - perhaps something like a little pearl - behind. Quite apart from the vividly drawn character of Gamble himself, the prose is arresting and haunting throughout.

"There were sounds. Coughs of sounds, anyway." Somebody that Gamble has lost and misses had "flickered, like an illness" in his imagination and memory. A canal is "carved in black against the landscape".

It is a stunning read, though short - its 180 pages packs in more emotion, albeit viscous, congealed emotion like those canal waters - that may books three or four times as long. Written without chapters, it comes over as the transcript of a debrief or an interrogation. A report, perhaps, garnered from tapes produced in some smoky interview room. Raw take, with no introduction, no conclusion, no analysis, no artificial structure imposed on the singular internal life of Mr Gamble.

For more about the book, and to buy a copy, see the publisher's website here.

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