I am a huge admirer of Graham Norton. There does not seem to be much that this funny, likeable man cannot turn his hand to. I was sceptical when I saw that he had written his first novel; I get a little cross and cynical when celebrities decide to write books. The sense of entitlement annoys me and I tend to think they take the place of better writers both in bookshops and on shelves at home. When I read Norton’s first book, however, Holding, I was a convert. I loved it. I have also read his memoir The Life and Loves of a He Devil, but I think his fiction is better.
Home Stretch is Norton’s third novel and is equally accomplished. Set in County Cork, in the south-west of Ireland, close to where Norton grew up, it carries the charm and gentleness of that part of the world, while also exploring some challenging themes.
The novel opens in 1987 with a car crash and the deaths of three young people late at night, the day before two of them were due to be married. There are three survivors, Linda O’Connell, the sister of the dead bride-to-be, who is seriously injured, Martin Coulter, the local doctor’s son, and Connor Hayes, the 17 year-old son of local publicans. Whilst he is not considered directly at fault, Connor admits to being the driver and must therefore pay in some way. Connor is convicted of, we do not quite know what, but presumably dangerous driving, and given a two year suspended sentence. But the shame of being in some way responsible for so many deaths in the small town community is a far greater punishment that not only Connor, but his parents and sister Ellen will have to bear for much longer. It is decided that Connor should disappear for a while and he is sent to England to the employ of a distant cousin on a building site in Liverpool. The work does not suit Connor at all; living in a large scruffy house with the other lads on the building site he is bullied and beaten. A chance encounter in a pub leads Connor to abandoning his job and moving to London. It quickly becomes apparent that Connor is gay and he immerses himself in the scene in the capital.
Meanwhile, back in Cork, Connor’s sister Ellen is wooed and won by the smooth and, at this point, affable Martin Coulter. The couple eventually marry and it seems as if the family has finally been redeemed. Connor has gradually lost touch with his parents and although this is heartbreaking for them, it does, in a way, enable everyone to move on.
From here onwards, the novel flits back and forth in time, from 1987, the time of the accident, to the 1990s, the 2000s and the 2010s as the plot is pieced together. We learn that Connor goes to live in a New York where we find him in a long-term relationship with a partner. In Cork, Martin Coulter has taken over as the local GP and he and Ellen, now with two children, have a difficult marriage. Connor’s parents have settled lives, but have never got over ‘losing’ their son. Linda, the third survivor of the crash, is paralysed and lives a fairly empty existence being cared for by her mother and a series of paid nurses.
It is clear that there was more to the 1987 car crash than there initially seemed and the truth of the terrible night unravels as the novel progresses. Norton’s plotting is sound although it is not difficult for the reader to work out what happened, there are enough clues. Norton’s real skill though is in the characterisation and he brings acute observation to all of his characters, even the minor ones. As with Holding, I listened to this book on audio, narrated by the author, so you get even more insight into his characters through the way he reads them. There is a deep affection for this part of Ireland and the people who dwell there and although Connor is exiled from his native land from quite a young age, seemingly cast out, there is a growth and acceptance on all sides by the end which indicates Norton’s own pride in his homeland.
Thoroughly enjoyable, recommended.
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