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Read David Hebblethwaite’s review of Whiteley’s novella on The New Review section of this site
This is Aliya Whiteley’s first novel, after 2004’s superb novella ‘Mean Mode Median’ (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site), and a rather different proposition from that earlier work. In the little Devon town of Allcombe, seven people begin their training course at a bank’s call centre. They play a game as an icebreaker: each person says three things about her- or himself, but only two are true; the other group members try to guess which is the lie. We then follow the trainees to the end of the course two months later, by which time their situations have changed somewhat…
As a novel ‘Three Things About Me’ will succeed or fail in large part on the strength of its characterisation, so it’s a pleasure to report that, in general, Whiteley prevails in this department. Yes, the trainees are (at first sight) stereotypes – Charlotte the career woman, Sam the old man in need of a new job, Hilary the fitness fanatic, and so on – but they’re stereotypes that, one suspects, might actually exist somewhere (whether or not one would ever wish to meet them is another matter entirely!). And some become more than stereotypes: perhaps the central theme of the novel is how we can hide our true selves from other people; and all Whiteley’s trainees (not to mention Rob, the trainer) are hiding something. Some do so openly, such as Alma, the faded Hollywood starlet who is best friends with booze but wants nothing to do with her work colleagues. Other characters don’t even realise what they’re hiding: Charlotte, for instance, comes across at first as a stereotypical career woman – ambitious, fluent in management-speak, and fighting a sexual harassment case against her former boss – but it becomes clear that there’s more to her than that, more than even Charlotte herself knows. Regrettably, not all the characterisation is as strong: for example, Amie, the religious girl who has left her commune for the first time, doesn’t quite grow as much as one would like. However, on the whole, Whiteley’s characters are engaging company for the duration of the novel.
The author’s prose is also engaging: she has a knack for producing effective turns of phrase (“So much for abseiling, Hilary thought, as she observed the crumpled bodies of her instructor and her best friends on the floor of the natural valley below.”). There are also some deftly constructed set-pieces, some funny (such as the cringe-making insincerity evident as Rob tries to tell each trainee how happy he is to be discussing their performance individually), others poignant, even shocking.
The novel’s setting is nicely intriguing. The author successfully conveys the atmosphere of Allcombe (based on her home town of Ilfracombe), a seaside town in the winter, whose economy is dependent on tourism but out of season, with nothing for the kids to do on a night but go to a cheap club. But there are hints of stranger happenings: Sam may appear to be just another old man uncomfortable with computers, but he used to be a superhero (with one of the silliest powers imaginable). Although it gives rise to some quite amusing images (of Sam’s previous exploits), this side is not explored enough for it to sit comfortably with the rest of the book. But if there are stranger undercurrents to Allcombe, it would be interesting to see them in future works.
Putting all this together, ‘Three Things About Me’ is a thoroughly entertaining read, but… well, it’s not really a flaw with the novel as presented, but there is a sense that the book could be even better if Whiteley had taken one or two of the disparate elements and pushed further in a particular direction. Thus ‘Three Things…’ is not quite as funny as it might be if the characters were true stereotypes; yet they’re not quite rounded enough to make the book the best possible character study. It could benefit from being that bit stranger, or from more (and more-developed) connections between the characters... And these are not just idle wishes: it’s evident from the book that Whiteley would be capable of all these things.
But enough of that: I don’t wish to detract from the quality of the book in hand. ‘Three Things About Me’ is a very good first novel that whets the reader’s appetite for the major work which Aliya Whiteley will surely produce one day.
Reproduced with permission
David Hebblethwaite lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.
|THREE THINGS ABOUT ME
by Aliya Whiteley
(Macmillan New Writing 2006)
Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
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