Review: Graham Norton's Holding
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I moved to Bandon, a small town in the south of Ireland, in 1981. Shortly thereafter, Graham William Walker left Bandon, changed his name to Norton, and moved to London, where he found fame, certainly, and presumably no small fortune. Those two events, sadly, are entirely unrelated.
I disclose my connection, tenuous as it is, to Graham Norton just to let you know that I came to Holding predisposed to liking it.
Norton has never failed to entertain, whether as a baby-faced actor playing Father Noel Furlong in Father Ted, as an agony aunt for The Telegraph, or as a handsomely bearded chat show host. As one who spends an enjoyable hour with Graham Norton every Friday night, I was intrigued to discover whether Norton the Novelist had more to offer than another good joke.
You could be forgiven for expecting Graham Norton’s first novel to be flamboyant and heaving with scantily-disguised celebrities. One might have expected a glimpse into the green room or even an innuendo-laden bonkathon. Devil the chance. Norton the Novelist is a gentle and mild-mannered story-teller with his fancy shoes planted firmly in the soft ground of West Cork.
Graham Norton has mentioned in recent interviews that critics seem to have been surprised that his book is any good. The real surprise is that Holding reveals an entirely new side to Graham Norton. There is no trace of the slightly camp, effete, and occasionally cruel, custodian of the big red chair. Norton writes in an accent that is 400 miles due west of smart-assed BBC celebrity chat show host. However, his sharp insight into human relationships and his stone cold comic timing is immediately recognisable.
Set in the miniscule village of Duneen, Holding is a rural whodunnit. Sergeant P.J. Collins is a lonely comfort eater whose appetite for life has been sustained by the generous fried breakfasts cooked up by Mrs. Meany, his long-suffering housekeeper. The most taxing aspect of P.J.’s policing career thus far has been patrolling parking arrangements at the annual Church of Ireland village fête.
When a set of old bones is unearthed at an abandoned farm, P.J. finally has a real case to chew on.
The plot is teased out in the style of an old-fashioned fireside yarn. A trio of spinster sisters arouse suspicion. An alcoholic housewife despairs of a wasted life. A hotshot detective from the Big Smoke butts his nose in. All the while Mrs. Meany keeps on frying sausages.
This is storytelling in the tradition of the Irish seanchaí. Norton takes us up one narrow by-road after another, hits a dead end, reverses down memory lane, defies expectations, and takes off again... that’s how you get around in West Cork.
There is a certain satisfaction to books that are firmly rooted in a place. Like Donna Leon in Venice or James Herriot in Yorkshire, you simply can’t imagine Norton's story happening anywhere else in the world. Graham Norton understands that if you can convince the reader that the place is real, they can better believe that the characters and their exploits are also true.
He writes convincingly about Deasy’s red lemonade, The Southern Star weekly newspaper, and bands with names like The Haymakers. Our shared hometown of Bandon is mentioned only as a place you might visit to purchase an unruly mongrel dog.
This is an author writing about home.
Norton keeps a holiday house in West Cork and spends most of his summers soaking up the drizzle, hosting charity table quizzes and popping in to the annual Church of Ireland village fête. Perhaps it is because he is loath to encourage an influx of tourists that he declines to dwell on the undeniable beauty of the place. Instead he writes, as a native must, about the physical isolation and insularity of living in a place like this.
Norton has created a compelling bit of escapism from a cast of characters whose choices are limited by their situation, by their history or by their own fear: a woman who agrees to marry a man simply because there is (physically and literally) no-one else on the horizon, a girl whose heart is broken because her father didn’t love her enough not to leave, and a man who drove himself into Duneen and might just manage to find the high road out again. If Mrs. Meany and her triangular, crustless ham sandwiches don’t tear the heart out of you, I don’t know what will.
Perhaps, after all, Holding really does allow us a glimpse behind the chat show studio set. There is a sense that fiction may have granted Graham Norton the freedom to shed his armour, to relax and be himself. He is, in some ways, one of the lucky ones who got away. Holding reads like a lament for those he left behind.