Being different, being alike: an orphan, a canal boat community, and the silent world of mime (London, present-day): It takes courage for a debut author to pen a novel full of odd and unlikable characters in an unfamiliar setting. It also takes originality. And a respect for the reader’s sensibilities to care about these unconventional characters when the inviting prose brings you close to a place that’s “a halfworld up, a halfworld apart.” That’s what British author Mave Fellowes has done, drawing us in from the opening pages, quietly, poetically:
“London in August. From above, the city shimmers and glints in the sun. There is so much activity on its surface that it looks crawling, swarming with movement, as if it is one whole living thing. But look closer and this is just an impression given by the million little channels of movement that cross, curve, diverge, and wind between buildings. These channels glitter. Look closer still. Sunlight flashes back from the windscreens and the roofs of the coaches, lorries moving across the surface of the city. The machines chug out a quivering exhaust which softens the edges of the buildings and blurs outlines. It is thirty degrees of dry, dusty heat and London is baking.”
Not surprisingly, with a little googling, we can learn that the author once lived in a house overlooking these “little channels of movements” – 2,000 miles of historic waterways – where “narrowboats” (less than seven feet wide, designed for Britain’s narrow canals; up to 2012 managed by British Waterways, today by Canal and River Trust) float along towpaths and under bridges on water that’s “in love with the moon.” Chaplain and Company takes place on the Little Venice canal, near London’s Paddington and Regent’s Park. And yet, “life on these waterways is lower than life on the streets around it. It is below the eyeline. A good place to hide.”
The offbeat characters hiding and drifting along in this dreamed up canal boat community include:
Odeline Milk: The heart of the story. At 19, she’s the oddest of them all. She dresses oddly, acts oddly, and has chosen an unusual artistic aspiration: mime. She senses she “breathed a rarer air,” but isn’t sure if she’s “better or worse”? She’s performed as an illusionist at children’s parties, but adamant she’s “an artist not a children’s entertainer.” Her ho-hum accountant mother, Eunice, who laughed at her tricks, bought her magic business cards, has passed away, which leads her to discover her father’s identity when she sorts through her mother’s paperwork. When Odeline learns she’s named after her father, a clown in a traveling circus, the epiphany is life-changing. Now she knows where she gets her “gift for movement,” her artistic passion, and her “butterscotch skin.” Her father’s nomadic lifestyle inspires her to leave her quaint yet stifling village of Arundel for London, for a floating home. She dreams to be with him.
One of the delights of the novel are glimpses into the silent performing arts world of magic and mime. We hear of 19th century English magicians, Maskelyne and Cooke, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplain, and Marcel Marceau, Odeline’s idol. (She owns 19 of his books.) Her everyday dress and accessories are borrowed from these silent artists – bowler hat, baggy pants, oversized “brogues,” red “braces,” and a prop box she drags around. When we meet her, she’s also antisocial, barely eats, paranoiac, fanatical about keeping track of finances and her plans in a notebook, unable to say thank you, and has difficulty discerning when “she has discovered a terrible thing, or done a terrible thing herself.”
Chaplain & Company: Odeline’s historic narrowboat, listed here as an important character because the boat feels alive: she “breathes” and “sighs” and endures. Such a clever name, attracting Odeline to buy it with her inheritance, yet it has nothing to do with the legendary Charlie. Its history becomes known to us over time. Stay with it, because it’s interesting information about the history of narrowboats during the war, and because it tells us something about living a life different than our own.
John Kettle: Canal boat warden and Odeline’s nemesis. He’s a disagreeable alcoholic, dirty, and prejudiced against persons who are bi-racial and Asian. When he shouts profanities, Enchanted Prose winces. Fellowes hints at an earlier life as a “submariner,” when he was “better at life.”
Vera: A big waitress who works at the canal café. She dresses in flashy pink tracksuits and floral skirts, is glued to international news, harbors a secret, and is scared of her powerful boss, Mr. Zjelko.
Ridley: Odeline’s heavily-tattooed neighbor, owner of Saltheart, another apt name, we discover. In fact, he and Vera are rather likable. It’s Odeline’s slow acceptance of their friendship that absorbs us.
We may think these colorful characters have nothing in common with each other, or us, but the brilliance of the novel is the way the story unfolds to show us that they do. The shared human thread: loneliness. The prose feels intentionally matched to the world of canal boats and mime, “not grand or flamboyant” but gentle and purposeful. The characters go through their share of disappointments but we’re on the lookout for hope and goodness. It comes to us the way “sunlight seems to bounce piercingly off the triangle of water, making liquid stars” – magically.
Fellowes you’ll see knows how to wave a magic wand. Lorraine