For those of us hungry for something substantive in our contemporary fiction, Heartland, Anthony Cartwright’s second novel, elegantly crafts a deft lyrical realism that’s given shape by a tightly woven, elliptical narrative argues Wes Brown.
Like Don DeLillo’s classic Underworld – Cartwright, cubist-like, uses sport to draw together disparate strands of fragmentation:
“Beckham’s face filled the screen, filled the room. Rob had driven past the giant hoarding over the motorway a few weeks ago. He’d driven for miles, worrying about the game against the mosque and the election, worrying about his dad who’d gone out to do some canvassing for Jim.”
Beyond the superficial similarities and sense of urban dysphoria, with Heartland you still sense more traditional influences in the social realist novel; and though Cartwright’s concerns are glaringly up-to-date, he is a skilful enough a novelist to not simply or crudely pass reportage off as fiction. Heartland is not a big novel, not in size (289 pages, large font) nor is it a sui generis work of prodigious talent; which is why its overbearing, braggadocio blurb does it a disservice, claiming bogusly that Heartland, “audaciously enters the heartland of post-9-11 Britain”.
It is too tepid, too parochial, to convincingly achieve those effects. Yet what we do find in the body of the novel, thankfully, is not a misguided sociology experiment, or an attempt to amplify the news cycle, but a technically proficient, enjoyable middleweight novel that understands a good portion — if not quite the heartland — of post-9/11 Britain. The novel convinces more as portrait of Black Country urban life, foremost, and second, as a study of the identity crises within a multiculturalist framework that propagates essentialist ideas about cultural background: pleasingly, nobody in the novel fits the typecast, everybody has their own heart, their own mind and struggles to find sense in a community that is not a community, a multi-racial society that is not multicultural, and meaning in an age of big government and individual malaise.
One frustration with the novel can be the perpetual lack of self-certainty, gusto amongst its cast. Rob Gatesby, a former Aston Villa trainee, now plays for Cinderheath FC and works as a teaching assistant. Caught between his loyal, but hooligan BNP friends and the Guardianista culture of the local school, he is the novel’s naive witness, but has little conviction beyond football. He, like most of the characters in the novel, is straddled between cultures, suffering an identity crisis. One of the most telling scenes follows Rob’s working-life in school, when he does question prevailing ideas, defending his brethren:
“No, that’s not right, Miss Pale said slowly. They have to say what religion they are. Christian, Muslim, and then find and draw the symbol for that religion. She can say she’s Church of England. I know that, Rob said, even more slowly. Chelsey doesn’t, or just won’t do it this morning. Any suggestions?”
The supporting characters are curious, well drawn out, recurrently gloomy, too accepting of the cleft in their heart. Veteran Labour councilor Jim, laments his downward spiral, his Party’s inability to connect with its people. Adnan, a mysterious character who disappeared years ago, and Jasmine, a teacher still reeling from a disastrous love affair. Cartwright has an especial talent for illuminating the working-lives of ordinary people and a keener ear for dialogue. With Heartland, his follow up to The Afterglow, there’s every chance he can go on to faithfully record the uncertain inner lives and discordant cultures of modern Britain. To go on to do as Don DeLillo did and use, “the whole picture, the whole culture”.
Tindal Street, 289pp
Wes Brown is a 25 year old writer based in Leeds. His debut novel, Shark, was published in 2010.