Home Stretch by Graham Norton

As a writer, Graham Norton has proven himself to have a refreshingly light touch. When combined with his insight into rural community life in Ireland, the result is a slice of uncomplicated escapism.

His latest novel explores the weighty subjects of tragedy and shame, but without a leaving behind a gloomy or sombre residue. Instead, reading Home Stretch is a revitalising experience, and perhaps even a hopeful one.

“There are moments in any life that are to be treasured, but only sometimes are they recognised as they happen. That was how the five people in the blue estate car felt that day. The windows down, an optimistic glow about the town, two of their number about to embark on a whole new life together. It felt special. This was not a day to be forgotten or confused with all the others.”

The novel opens in the 1980s and as a young man Connor Hayes causes a car crash while on the way home from the beach, killing three of his passengers. He is haunted and shaken by the events of that day, which are shrouded in ambiguity. He was not close friends with the others, and he was driving a car that wasn’t his. When his local town, Mullinmore, turns its back on him, he leaves for good in a futile effort to outrun his past.

Connor is gay and throughout the novel he battles with self-loathing and self-protection, often to his own detriment. While this is a mystery novel, at its heart it is a book about loneliness, self-acceptance and modernity.

Everything is laid bare in an authentic and sometimes even deprecating way, but there are certainly moments of beauty and poignancy too. While there were an unfortunate amount of typos, they didn’t detract or lessen the novel’s impact.

The writing is not extraordinary, it is comfortable and easy to navigate as the author takes the reader by the hand and gently leads them through the narrative. The stakes are never high and there is a reassuring sense that there will be a nice, tidy resolution. As this book was released during a global pandemic, this is a particularly welcome quality.

Connor’s sister Ellen is flawed and naïve, but also kind, open-minded and forgiving. Her marriage is without passion, care or sexual satisfaction and Ellen is scarred by it from the outset.

With her infamous brother gone, her romance with Martin causes a crisis of confidence. She is in love with him, but she doesn’t trust his motives and fears he only married her out of pity. She carries this fear with her into adulthood, but when she cuts herself loose from her shame, it is delightful to behold.

“The attention made her feel almost physically sick as she walked around the town. After work she had taken to hiding at the back of the town library leafing through big photography books, taking solace in images of people with lives that looked harder than her own.”

She married a man who did not love her and pressured her into being the perfect housewife. It was satisfying to watch Ellen grow a backbone and break away from this expectation, and it was a pleasure to engage in her small acts of subterfuge, when she passes off ready meals as her own cooking and sneaks glasses of her husband’s precious Pouilly-Fuissé.

By comparison, Connor is somewhat hollow, like a rough sketch of the person he could have been. Having never been able to accept himself, it makes sense that Norton writes Connor as a rather lost, incomplete sort of man. Trapped in his adolescence and imprisoned in his trauma, he is hyper-emotional, yet entirely unable to express his true self.

“How many gay young men had made the same excuses, when in reality it was all about their own self-loathing? They were the ones who believed that they were lesser beings, not worthy of love. Running away meant never having to put their families or friends to the test.”

The twist is not sensational, but the pace of the book has enough momentum to make it a quick and indulgent read. In one word, it is wholesome. It serves as a reminder that love and acceptance cannot be indefinitely lost, and that, with a bit of hope, there is always a way back home. A novel about family and self-acceptance was simply lovely to step into, even if just for a couple of hours.

Norton has said this was his most personal book and that is very apparent in the acknowledgements. He admits that he “took the easy way out” by leaving Ireland as a young man, so he takes the time to thank those who stayed, the campaigners, the activists and protestors, the ones who carved out their own space to make Ireland the “modern, tolerant country it has become,” and this was the perfect sentiment to end on.

 

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Coronet, 2020)

Support local book shops by ordering Home Stretch online from Bookshop.org

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Top image credit: Rebecca Gilroy
Nails: Break a Red by MyGel

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