The Prodigals by Frank Burton

Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, October 9, 2013 Under: Book reviews



“The Prodigals” is an ambitious contemporary novel by Frank Burton, who runs Philistine Press (click here for an interview with him on that subject).  It follows the lives of four troubled young men in Manchester.  Well, that bit of the review was easy, because I have just copied it straight off the book description on Smashwords.  And it is a perfectly accurate description – but I can see why the author pretty much stopped there, except for adding that the book is also about “friendship, religion, drinking, cruelty and love” and “about leaving home and returning.”   Because if I were looking to write a longer blurb for it, I think I would struggle to hit the right note.  More on that later.

The structure of “The Prodigals” is unusual in that we are introduced to the main character, Travis, in the first chapter – but then, aside from a couple of fleeting appearances, he vanishes from sight until about half way through.  That second half of the book is almost entirely devoted to Travis’ story and could, in theory, stand on its own as a novella.  The first half of the book, meanwhile, divides its time largely between three other characters, Brian, Howard and Declan.

Brian and Howard are close friends who are both into religion – but a row over a seemingly trivial incident in a pub drives them apart.  Howard joins the police but is traumatised after witnessing a shooting.  Declan, meanwhile, becomes increasingly withdrawn and retreats to his bedsit, where he ponders the meaning of his rather soulless existence.  The second part of the novel tells how Travis went from being one of the brightest pupils at his school to dropping out at 15-16, leaving home and then eking out a living in a succession of dead-end jobs, not seeing his parents for over ten years.

If you like novels to be pacy and tightly plotted, “The Prodigals” probably isn’t going to be for you – and even readers who don’t fall into that category may need to be a bit patient with it.  The novel is quite episodic and although Brian, Howard and Declan all re-appear in Travis’ story, their appearances are brief and they aren’t essential to the plot.  They are more important in terms of the book’s themes of religion, friendship and cruelty – in fact, the thematic connections are probably stronger than the plot connections.  Some of the sections of the first half of the book also feel as if they might have started life as short stories – particularly one involving a rather striking incident with a horse.  But although some readers may not like the episodic structure, I personally quite like being made to do a bit of work to join up the dots – so for me, it made the book more interesting.  Another feature which may divide readers is that Brian is dyslexic – so his first person blog is written as he would write it, complete with numerous mis-spellings etc.  Again, I didn’t have a problem with that, but it may not work for everyone.

On the face of it, none of the characters is particularly sympathetic – so you may be wondering what kept me reading.  Partly it was the high quality of the writing.  But that alone wouldn’t have been enough because if I had not cared what happened to the characters, I would not have finished the book.  I think it was mainly the fact that, despite their manifest flaws, the characters are all genuinely struggling to come to terms with who they are and where they belong – but they are woefully ill equipped to deal with it.  So instead they bottle it all up inside (Declan), obsess about religion (Brian and Howard) or just self-destruct (Travis).

Anyway, to return to the point I started with – if I were writing a blurb for this book, what would it say?  I could, for example, suggest that “The Prodigals” is a piece of gritty social realism.  The trouble is, that makes it sound like one of those novels where people behave badly - but in the end we discover that it’s not really their fault, because society is to blame.  If anything, though, I would say that “The Prodigals” tends towards the opposite view – which is that its characters largely have themselves to blame for their predicament and the pity of it is that it takes some of them such a very long time to see it.  So, rather than being a critique of society, it is more about individuals struggling to find something to believe in (or reacting – fairly violently in some cases - against a previously held set of beliefs).  The trouble is, that risks making it sound like some po-faced, existential angst-fest – which wouldn’t really be fair to it either, since it has much to offer in the way of lively incident and wry humour. 

So as you can see, I am really struggling to categorise it here – but I think that’s a good thing, because there is already far too much genre fiction out there which is all too ready and willing to be pigeon-holed.  And although I have reservations about whether “The Prodigals” will be everyone’s cup of tea, I enjoyed it – and I liked the fact that it was unconventional and ambitious in its approach (especially as traditional publishers aren’t generally publishing that kind of fiction any more because it’s seen as too “uncommercial”).

“The Prodigals” is available from Smashwords in a variety of formats (including ebooks) here or online here - and at the time of this review it was free of charge.  There is an interview with the author here in which he discusses the novel.

In : Book reviews 


Tags: "frank burton" "the prodigals" 
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Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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