Chamber Music, by Tom Benn, is not the sort of book I’d ever pick out for myself in a bookshop, given a free choice. Why? Because even though I am impressed by the skill of writing a dialect-heavy novel, I find such an approach to dialogue rather painful to read; also, when I’m not very familiar with the dialect, I can’t ‘hear it in my head’. I must admit, too, that the presentation of the seamier side of life for a whole novel is, for me, too much noir in one go! However, as I’ve explained in a recent blog-post, I’m meeting Tom at a Breckland Book Festival crime-writers’ session which I’m chairing. Claire Sharland, the organiser, kindly offered to pay for this book if I acquired it. I should add, hastily, that of course I’d have made sure that I’d read it before meeting Tom, in any case!
Technically speaking, it is a brilliant novel. I don’t quite know how to describe the technique that Tom has used – it is Irving Welsh crossed with William Faulkner, if that makes sense. I know that often writers resent being asked if their books are autobiographical or ‘drawn from life’; and, whilst I have no intention of asking Tom such a question, it seems likely to me that he must have lived and breathed the under-class, criminal-underworld Mancunian society that he depicts – otherwise he would never have been able to write such pitch-perfect dialect or captured the topography of the mean streets of Manchester with such conviction. On occasion, the use of dialect is so rich that the non-Mancunian reader is baffled, but such is Benn’s skill that eventually it is possible to decipher meaning from context. For a simple example, I picked up quite quickly that ‘scran’ is slang for a tasty snack.
This book has very little in common with Elly Griffiths’s Dying Fall, the other book featured in the Breckland session, which is no doubt why these two authors were billed together. However, both do share a pronounced sense of place and in both novels I feel that the crimes act as a vehicle for exploring the characters, rather than themselves being the focal points of the novels. Henry Bane is a complex character who takes a lot of fathoming – I suspect I should learn even more about him if I were to read the book twice; and Roisin is portrayed in an enigmatic and, given the situations in which she is placed, paradoxically delicate way.
I’m particularly looking forward to asking Tom Benn to read a passage from Chamber Music when I meet him next Saturday, for I want to get the authenticity of his voice into my reading of the novel; I’m sure that a live reading will be captivating.
4 thoughts on “Chamber Music, a novel for Breckland Festival”
I hear what you say about a dialect-heavy novel. I find my eyes don’t fix onto the language and I’m skimming across the page, rather than feeling locked in, glued as I am with more accessible work. But, having said that, I’m intrigued by Irving Welsh crossed with William Faulkner!! Love them both so…
Hello, Gabriela. Interesting, isn’t it, when a feature like dialect detracts for one personally from a novel which has real quality; I had to be honest here: it’s a matter of individual taste, rather than critical judgement.
I also find dialect-heavy a bit heavy going (excuse the heaviness there :-)) I must say I’ve reached a stage in life where if it’s hard work, I tend not to finish books. Terrible to be so lazy, but with the other demands of life being compulsory, and reading isn’t, then I tend to give myself a break. I’m curious to know what the public reading is like now, though. Perhaps that’s the key – get an audio version!
I’m looking forward to it, because I do find colourful dialect fascinating to listen to; reading it is another matter, of course. Perhaps this is something where film can score over print: it’s not so much a matter of laziness (You do yourself down!) as the practical difficulty of getting immersed, as Gabriela has said.