“Turning Thirty” by Mike Gayle (2000)

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“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!

“Turning Forty” by Mike Gayle (2013)


Life begins?

Life begins?

“Wiping my hand against the steamed-up window of the taxi I press my nose against the cold glass to get a better look at the worn but sturdy façade of my destination.”

Despite still occasionally getting asked for ID in Waitrose when stocking up on alcohol, I am actually a mere fortnight away from being twenty-eight-years-old. As such, a book titled Turning Forty may seem to have little between its covers that could interest me. As it is, it’s written by Mike Gayle, one of the favourite writers, and is the sequel to his book I read probably about ten years ago, Turning Thirty. Despite being a follow up, with the same characters ten years on, it doesn’t seem necessary to have to remember the first book, as I can recall very few specific details about it, just that I liked it.

Turning Forty is the tale of Matt Beckford, a thirty-nine-year-old IT industry professional who appears to have it all – wonderful wife, high-flying job that takes him around the world, and he’s just bought himself a shed. Frankly, he’s made it. But then his world comes crashing down around him, and a combination of a breakdown from the stress of his job, and the final acceptance from both himself and his wife Lauren that they don’t love each other anymore, sees him now facing his fortieth birthday divorced, broke and unemployed. With nothing else for it, he returns to his family home in Birmingham where his parents are happy to see him but concerned. Matt, however, has come up with an insane plan – he’s going to find his old on-off girlfriend Ginny and get back with her.

Fate, however, intervenes. He does indeed find Ginny again, and despite rumours of marriage, she’s still single. They embark on a whirlwind romance and book tickets to travel the globe, as they should’ve done when they were young, but she very quickly calls time on the budding relationship. Broken once more, Matt starts to wonder if his life will ever get any better.

The book, from what I remember, mimics the plot of Turning Thirty, where Matt returns home just before his thirtieth birthday to find his old friends and, as this time, rekindle things with Ginny. As you can guess from this, it’s a story about the past, about letting go and moving on, and about how one cannot stay in a rut forever. Time keeps passing, whether you like it or not, and it doesn’t always produce developments that you’re keen on.

Fundamentally, Matt is a decent character, but doesn’t always act on the best impulses. He is overly concerned about his age, and spends much of the novel comparing himself to people he knew from school and what they’re doing with their lives now. Most of them are introduced with their school superlative and then their current lifestyle, if only to further showcase how many people lose sight of their dreams and end up with a life that they didn’t particularly want. Although I don’t know what it’s like to be forty, many of the characters here are in their twenties, and the way they are portrayed, and especially their reactions to a deadbeat forty-year-old, strike a chord. I’m not so fond on Ginny as a character, but that may just be because we see her from Matt’s eyes. She isn’t painted as evil, and Gayle, as usual, does wonders with three-dimensionality, bringing to life characters who are fully-rounded, full of flaws and complications, the number of which only increase with age.

Gayle’s writing is warm and I always get the feeling that you’re hearing the story in a pub over a pint, just chatting with a mate. Some readers, including myself, may note the surprising number of coincidences that pepper the story, but they can be forgiven because none of them lead to anything good. If a story must have a coincidence in it, then it must lead to bad things, an idea I played with a little in my novel. It ends on a bittersweet note, and with an emphasis on the importance of family, something that seems to recur often in Gayle’s work. Although Matt may be falling apart, there’s no doubt that Mike Gayle is simply getting better with age.

“This Book Will Save Your Life” by A. M. Homes (2006)

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One of literature’s most delicious covers.

“He stands at the glass looking out.”

Los Angeles is not somewhere I have particular dreams of visiting, although, like all creatives, the idea has naturally crossed my mind. It is the home of film and fiction and fantasy – all writers, actors and artists should end up there eventually. A city where it’s always sunny and everyone’s beautiful and no one cares about money because everyone’s got more than they know what to do with. But, when it comes down to it, I honestly don’t think I could bear the relentless sun, beautiful people tend to be boring, and I’ve got enough money for my book and wine based needs.

Still, I picked up this book and stepped into LA anyway. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Richard Novak lives an almost reclusive life, only speaking to his cleaner, nutritionist and personal trainer, and never really leaving his house unless necessary. He works in finance, does something with stocks and shares, and is doing very well for himself. And then, one night, he gets an excruciating pain throughout his body. Unable to be sure if it has just come on, or it’s always been there and he’s been ignoring it, he calls 911 and is taken to hospital. Doctors cannot find anything wrong with him and send him on his way.

But his life has changed in ways he could not have imagined. He stops at a donut shop on his way back ffrom the hospital and meets Adhil, a hardworking immigrant with a love of fine cars and well made pastry. Finally cracking out of his shell, he begins to expand his social circle. There’s Cynthia, a depressed housewife whom he meets when she’s crying in the produce aisle of a supermarket; Nic, his new next door neighbour who occasionally looks like he might be homeless; Dr Lusardi, the one physician who seems to actually care about Richard as a person; and Tad Ford, the competitive but down-to-earth movie star.

Then Richard speaks to his ex-wife and finds out that his son, Ben, is travelling across the country and wants to see him. Richard has barely seen him since he walked out on them over a decade ago and begins to wonder if he and his son can rekindle their relationship and get to know one another.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about this book. Someone told me once that not much happens in it, but that’s sort of misleading. A lot does happen, but a lot of it is terribly mundane. It’s also very weird. Richard becomes a sort of “freak magnet” with numerous bizarre things beginning to happen to him, such as his house falling into a sinkhole, becoming involved in the rescue of a horse alongside a famous movie star and his helicopter, adopting a stray dog, going away on a silent retreat and investing in a donut shop. There are whole passages that seem to make no sense, that don’t further the story or seem to fit with anything else, but afterwards they are clear as more and more signs that Richard is returning to the real world, to society.

It’s a book with a lot of heart, effectively about a man having a mid-life crisis and sorting himself out again with the support of a colourful cast of characters around him. Everyone is a bit screwed up, but fundamentally, most (if not all) of the characters are good people with good intentions. The book has a good feeling of “you are not alone”, that there are things to do out there if you just go and look for them. Sitting at home and counting your money is fine if that’s how you want to live, but there’s a big world out there full of interesting people who all know things that you don’t, and sometimes life needs to be more of an adventure. Less time spent playing Candy Crush, more time spent visiting strangers in nursing homes, having dinner with the rich and famous, or just eating glazed raspberry donuts.

And who knows? Maybe this book will save your life.