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Novel set largely in south-east England

24th March 2020

Prodigal by Charles Lambert, a novel set largely in south-east England.

Shortlisted for the Polari Prize 2019.Novel set largely in south-east England

ProdigalCharles Lambert’s fifth novel, focuses on the Eldritch family and explores the resentments and secrets that are the cause of the estrangement between the family members.  The novel opens with Jeremy, the youngest sibling, now in his fifties, living in Paris and scraping a living by writing soft-core pornography under a pseudonym.  When his sister phones to inform him that their father is on his deathbed, Jeremy reluctantly returns to the family home in rural England. Jeremy and Rachael have never been close and time and absence hasn’t improved things, so living together while waiting for their father’s inevitable death proves trying in the extreme.

The story then shifts back in time to give the reader some understanding of the nature of the siblings’ early relationship and their repeated and doomed attempts to connect with their parents; we discover the underlying causes of the parents’ toxic marriage and we follow the events leading up to Jeremy’s departure for Paris shortly after graduation; we learn about Rachael’s ill-fated marriage to the horrific Denny and we are allowed to witness Rachael and Jeremy’s visit to Greece to see their mother on her deathbed, a visit that delivers some unwelcome surprises for both.

The novel is set largely in the family home, a large sprawling country house in southern England and Lambert manages to convey the stultifying atmosphere of the place, which contrasts interestingly with the later sections set in the house in Greece.  The contrast between the gloomy boxed-in English house and the sun-filled open spaces of the house in Greece is clearly symbolic, showing the reader how the mother has finally escaped and found an honest and open relationship.

Lambert is undoubtedly a very skilled writer and the reader is immediately engaged and drawn into this family’s world.  The characters’ inner voices are honest to the point of being, at times, shocking and the author’s depiction of sibling discord certainly rings true, but the reader is left with a very bleak view of family relationships and humanity in general.  There really aren’t any likeable characters in Prodigal – just degrees of loathsomeness. The two central characters – Jeremy and Rachael are both deeply unattractive; self-centred, self-pitying and filled with resentment.  Prejudice is rampant throughout the novel, with numerous characters seeming to vie as to who can produce the most homophobic comments and the reader is also uncomfortably aware of the secrets that underlie the damaged relationships, secrets that mask hidden horrors, hinted at but never completely revealed.

Prodigal is largely a disquieting read, but, ultimately, I think saved because of the quality of the writing and by the touches of black humour that lift the mood.  Some of the characters, most notably Denny, are so appalling they actually make you laugh and there are wonderful, brilliantly described scenes worthy of the best scatological humour, such as the scene in Greece when Rachael falls foul of a dodgy stomach.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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