At the Dying of the Year
I was not unhappy to be asked to review this, the fifth Richard Nottingham novel by writer Chris Nickson, as I had not read him before and as I knew that the stories are set in eighteenth century Leeds, a place I know in its modern form very well indeed. Having no preconceived ideas whatsoever about the book, I didn’t really know what to expect, though Chris had provided, earlier this year via Twitter, a taster from his text.
The challenge for any historical novelist is to convince the reader of the authenticity of the story within its context; Nickson has researched his period well and gives physical location prominence in his approach. Leeds is depicted in its glories as the rich mercantile centre of the woollen trade and in its seamier squalor and this book focuses on the theme of corruption so precisely summed up by King Lear:
Thorough tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it. [King Lear IV vi 166-9]
By a plot which reminds readers of media accounts of the contemporary abuse of children by adults, we are made vividly aware of the truth of Karr’s well-known epigram “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Indeed, as I read, I noted how Nickson also achieves a sense of timelessness in the choice of language, both in dialogue and description, by using colloquial expressions still to be heard in Leeds; there is a feeling of familiarity about it that I am sure reflects the author’s personal Leeds background and ‘feel’ for the place and its people. However, the book has its own historical realism, where the central character, Constable Nottingham, moves in his family and professional worlds with the assurance of a man well created by his maker; indeed, the author establishes a convincing sense of personal emotion and single-minded devotion to his job, in spite of the dreadful clashes that occur between the two. What ultimately comes across to us are the fragility of people’s existences and the uncertain morality of those on both sides of the law; it is not a comfortable world and Nickson doesn’t flinch from demonstrating that there is no fictional control over real life. Yet there are strong signs of goodness and hope, friendship and fellow-feeling, so that the prevailing sombreness of the title and the events is somewhat modified.
The narrative allows for the separate perspectives of Richard Nottingham, his deputy, John Sedgwick, and a young police officer, Rob Lister, who loves the Constable’s daughter, to reveal their inter-related lives and to provide a greater ‘reach’ than a single viewpoint. They provide a formidable triumvirate in their knowledge and understanding of their patch, but they have their vulnerabilities and sensitivities and are not invincible in their work; they are sufficiently well-drawn to generate our sympathy and interest. The character of Leeds itself is strong and breathes into the tale a life of pubs, warehouses, corporation piles, stream and river and street and ginnel. Timble Bridge, over which Nottingham must go from home to work and back again, is a regularly repeated motif, associated with the Constable’s moods and feelings as well as his geographical place in the Leeds landscape.
All in all, I found At the Dying of the Year an engaging if somewhat melancholy read and I anticipate that Nickson’s existing appreciative audience will by swelled by this new novel. Congratulations to Chris on his publication day!