Small-Town Page-Turner

Duncan Neville, the lovingly written protagonist of Michael Arditti’s Widows and Orphans—an odd name for a book that isn’t odd at all—reminds one that a world exists outside the architectural barricades of London. He is the emblem of the local economy, of the normal world that exists outside the metropolis.

The slightly sleepy but seductive seaside town of Francombe in which Neville lives is in decline. The pier goes up in smoke, as if to signal the beginning of the end for the town. Francombe epitomises the small towns of this country, with their high streets and side lanes almost devoid of local businesses, their cobblers, bookshops and clock-menders long vanished. In Francombe’s case, only a coin shop, stamped with a heavy metal grille, remains down a side street.
Editing a family-owned local newspaper, the Francombe and Salter Mercury, Neville faces the same daily battles we all do. While the paper has served the south coast for 150 years, it has been ruined by new technology.

As Editor, it is his responsibility to balance the books, the editorial, the ads—and his personal life. He is the manager of a long-suffering staff with a tiring personal rivalry stemming from his schooldays and a son who doesn’t want to know him, enchanted by a stepfather and the curious irritation of a “cool” stepbrother who, for a teenage boy in the midst of peak-adolescent angst, is the ultimate distraction. Still, Neville stays true to himself, even when a bitter rival threatens to put out the candle of tradition that envelops the seaside town.

Yet the story isn’t really about a newspaper or personal allegiances, but about values. Neville’s are good and worthy; he is no anti-hero but a good man struggling through while his principles are compromised by the difficult modern world.

The contrast between old and new is given to us in every chapter: each opens with a clipping from the Mercury, written by one of the dwindling band of staffers. This reminder would, out of context, make Widows and Orphans a novel about journalism, but it is not. It is a novel about life and relationships, and how they are best managed.

It is easy to be carried away by Arditti’s prose; while some would consider the term “easy reading” derisive, none should in this case. I found an escape in this novel on the trundling District Line to Westminster, confronted by a sea of badly-fitting suits, sweaty faces and inconveniently large tourist backpacks, as much as on the train to Lancing in East Sussex, the seaside town that gives its name to the school that Neville attended, much to his son’s apparent distaste: “I was just making conversation.” “Yeah, about how you went to public school.”

No one is missed by Arditti’s crystal-clear eye. Neville, guiding a school tour around the Mercury’s offices, is hit by typical teenage disdain. The youngsters are, true to form, unwilling to embrace his adult sensibilities, buoyed by their ease of youth. Arditti pins this delicately, but expertly, to the board. Between Neville and his sister Alison, familiar familial tendencies are ignited: their relationship has lost its elastic, but kindly delineates everyday relationships.

Widows and Orphans, is at its heart, a compelling portrait of life in 21st-century Britain for the everyman. Duncan Neville’s struggles are our own—his paper’s struggles are nationwide, and offer a glimpse into the normal with its low-level politics, personal ambition and fractured relationships that are part and parcel of life inside and outside whichever bubble we choose to inhabit.

It is a social document, preserving, like the newspaper it describes, a kind of reality. This one is Francombe’s, and it feels far from fiction; one cannot help but be drawn further into its absorbing midst. While Duncan Neville struggles to keep his newspaper afloat, Arditti has no such trouble with the novel. The pages turn themselves.

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