Joe is 'spack' on ABCtales and his first novel 'Submarine' has met with huge success, including being made into an excellent film.
His second novel 'Wild Abandon' is now out and it's set in a commune. My friend, Red Tina, was one of the founders of a well known commune and so I thought it apposite for her to review the book. Here are her thoughts:
Wild Abandon is a bit of a romp about mid-life crisis and family breakdown. The story has added spice because the starring family: Mum, Dad, two kids and still nuclear after all these years, live in a commune.
Don and Freya first met as students in the eighties, then lived cheap with friend Janet, courtesy of solvent and lonely ex-landlord, Patrick. What could be more natural, when they tire of city life and jobs, than that Patrick is persuaded to bankroll an idealistic “self sufficient” community in rural Wales where they all can live raising goats and Don and Freya’s children, Kate and Albert, whilst Patrick pursues his unconsummated passion for Janet.
Twenty years later, Don’s role as chief ideologue, earth husband and father is being undermined by Kate (17) who wants to do well at A levels and get into Cambridge, Albert (11) who has developed his own mission independently of either parent, and Freya who appears to have suddenly regained consciousness, lost interest in Don and realised finally that her destiny is to be a mother to Kate and the unwashed Albert. Patrick has long been isolated in a geodesic dome at the bottom of the garden with an inexhaustible supply of dope and his still unconsummated passion for Janet, whose attributes apart from her chest remain undisclosed. The other commune members comprise Arlo, a predictably unpredictable burnt out chef, and Marina, potter, freeloader and prophetess of doom whose philosophy and six year-old, Isaac, are adopted by Albert. There is a changing supply of Woofers to carry the spears.
The action takes place over a few weeks of the summer of Kate’s A levels when she makes a break for it to live in suburbia with her boyfriend’s family, Freya makes a temporary break for it to live in the woods and bond with Albert, Patrick makes a break for it, actually breaking his ankle on a drug-fuelled cross-country flight, ending up being nursed and doted upon in hospital. Don tries to draw together his faltering family and faltering empire by organising an eardrum busting, free rave at the farm. This is the final dramatic set piece of the book.
Dramatic set pieces are the strengths of the book: it’s cinematic. A well-chosen picaresque setting enables odd characters and bizarre behaviours to come and go; the narrative road rollicks along between referential peaks: a chase, a Grease twist (Kate as Olivia Newton John), an American Beauty seduction attempt, We Need to Talk about Kevin moments, even a hostage scene. In short the narrative is episodic plot driven not character driven, which is a shame because Kate and, especially Albert, are engaging characters from whom more insight into a childhood sacrificed to parental egotism would be welcome and entertaining.
The other characters - apart from being really, really old in their early forties, unless they’re very, very old in their fifties like Patrick - don’t have much character and appear not to have changed since they were students. It’s hardly believable that Don and Freya’s marriage would have survived twenty years of the commune never mind the Lorelei call of the lonely predators who perennially encircle such encampments. And undoubtedly the object of Patrick’s desire would have been superseded in the first six months and not for the last time. Similarly missing is any account of the high jinks and longeurs that might be expected from the years of fun as townies wrestle with goats and intractable terrain, watched by locals who’ve long since packed it in.
I’m sorry that Joe Dunthorne hasn’t fully exploited his cast and scenario because his observations are acute, his language inventive and his story-telling often very funny. Still what he has given us is plenty entertaining enough. Enjoy.