“Here’s the thing: for a long time I, Matt Beckford, had been looking forward to turning thirty.”

In times of trouble, it is always nice to return to something comforting, be it a fish finger sandwich, a warm bath, or a Mike Gayle novel. I’ve spoken about him before a few times on here, but I’m slowly rereading them to get reviews of all his novels up on the blog and here is another, ironically the twenty-ninth book of the year.

Matt Beckford is looking forward to turning thirty. He’s got a great job in New York City, money in the bank, and a great girlfriend in Elaine. However, with barely six months to go before the big day, he and Elaine suddenly break up and he decides to take a job in the Sydney office to explore a new part of the world. But first, he’s heading home to Birmingham, to catch up with his parents, see his old friend Gershwin, and finally turn thirty.

When he arrives home, however, he also bumps into Ginny, who serves as his on-and-off girlfriend in his youth, and when they restart their friendship like no time has passed, he decides to seek out the others of the old group, hunting down geeky Pete, goth Bev, beautiful Katrina and clever Elliot. As his thirtieth birthday approaches and he learns that while some things can stay the same but others have to inevitably change, he wonders if maybe everything is as alright as he once thought it was.

Like all Mike Gayle’s books, this is instantly inviting. He has a compelling, natural style that makes the characters feel real. In a lesser writer’s hand, this world could be flat and lifeless, but the normality of the characters and their everyday world shines through and they become engaging. Matt seems a decent bloke, and his friends are all given enough personality and character for us to like them. I particularly enjoy that every person he meets that he knew in school gets a descriptor of who they were once and who they are now. They’re usually throwaway comments, but fun nonetheless. Some of these work out exactly as planned, such as a person who was most likely to rob a shop who is now doing time in prison for armed robbery, and some have gone entirely off book, such as the guy most likely to be a drug dealer, who is now a qualified dentist.

I suppose some people may have the complaint that there’s no real resolution on anything. It’s just a story of some things that happened with little lasting consequence, rather than having a particularly solid ending, but at the same time, Gayle eventually revisited these characters in Turning Forty, so there’s closure there. (If there’s a Turning Fifty to come, it can’t be far off now!) On the other hand, I quite like this. Not everything has to be endlessly dramatic; sometimes they can just be fun, and this certainly is. It’s a sweet, smart study into what it means to turn thirty (a milestone I hit two years ago with a not-inconsiderate bump).

However, it is also certainly a product of its time. That’s not a complaint because it’s clearly set at the time it was written, but it seems unfathomable to me now that life was like this. Published twenty years ago, it’s odd to imagine this is a time before social media and omnipresent mobile phones. I think I’ve mentioned this in earlier books of Gayle’s as well, and it gives them a certain charm, but not a timeless one. Even just a few years later, it became impossible to not know what everyone you went to school with was doing thanks to Facebook. As such, the effort Matt makes to reach out to his former friends is greater, and the things he discovers about them are more of a surprise, whereas if I just want to know what anyone I don’t speak to anymore is doing, I can just look them up. I’ve always been very lucky to still be good friends with many of the people I met school, but if we didn’t have the Internet, would we have stayed so close? Who can say!

Satisfyingly friendly, funny and fresh, even as it turns twenty.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows Dexter who is tired of being single while all his friends get married and settle down, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!