In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Filling Station”, the speaker describes a grimy, greasy petrol station in a horrified, condescending tone, only to notice, at the end, the small details that indicate care, even a sense of beauty: a doily and “a big, hirsute begonia” are mocked earlier in the poem but, on closer observation, the doily is “embroidered in daisy stitch”; and somebody waters and tends the begonia. As always in a Bishop poem, there is looking, and then there is paying attention, a kind of secular prayer. “Somebody loves us all,” the poem concludes – meaning, in the words of the protagonist of Damien Wilkins’s new novel, Paddy Thompson, “not God but simply a person close by.”

That, you might say, is also the conclusion reached in this novel, in which God is discussed but generally agreed not to exist. “I have faith minus the other stuff,” Paddy’s best friend, Lant, asserts. In place of God is the goodness of human beings, their fumbling attempts to reach out to each other, to help. There are few truly bad people here, indeed only one – not counting a minor character who is rightly ridiculed by others, his badness recognized as a kind of moral stupidity. Wilkins has assumed the difficult task of representing good people going about their rather ordinary lives. Paddy, a speech therapist, is working with an electively mute teenager. His wife, Helena, runs a language school. His mother, Teresa, develops Foreign Accent Syndrome, an actual medical condition in which sufferers, usually after a brain injury or stroke, begin speaking their native language in a foreign accent. This is a novel deeply concerned with language, and how we communicate through it and in spite of it. The book is filled with communication by various media: appropriately, it ends with a text message.

Teresa’s acquired accent is French; as the novel progresses and more and more back-story is filled in, we see that this may not be arbitrary. Her worried, middle-aged children do their best to help. Paddy is a much more engaging protagonist than that of Wilkins’s last novel, The Fainter. There, Wilkins seemed to be experimenting with a central character who was, as the title suggests, faint; his was the perspective from which we saw the action and the other characters, which were generally more interesting than he was. Paddy’s perspective is the perceptual window in this new novel, but Paddy – fifty, balding, humorous, observant – is a much more engaging character. Wilkins is especially good at conveying marital happiness, a rare and usually fatal element in fiction.

Elizabeth Bishop (in one, odd slip, Emily Bishop – what was Wilkins thinking? Emily Dickinson? Coronation Street?) is one of this novel’s presiding spirits (George Eliot is another). “Bishop’s characters and narratives were appealing,” reflects Paddy, with what strikes me as a novelist’s view, and a limited one. But Wilkins’s own characters are immensely appealing, and his narratives too. In some of his earlier novels, plot seemed a necessary device on which to hang some very fine writing: here, a story that might in the hands of a less skilled writer be mundane is rich and satisfying.

Dominion

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Tim Tweets