Who’d be young? Not 25-year-old Tamsin, if her behaviour is anything to go by. A classical pianist who’s never quite going to hit the heights, she devotes herself to playing for the residents of an old people’s home. She’s also acquired a boyfriend, Callum, a teacher several years her senior, for whom, when Christmas comes round, she buys an electric vegetable slicer that he’s had his eye on. The couple holiday in a run-down B&B in Ilfracombe. They are not exactly living la vida loca.
But Tamsin is also suffering from a kind of arrested development — still occupying her childhood bedroom in Holland Park, where she keeps a watchful eye over her mother, Roz, since Tamsin’s father, a celebrated conductor, quit the family home for another woman. (Roz, in fact, is doing rather well; having been through the dyeing-your-hair-black phase, she is coining it in giving lectures on the healing power of revenge.) Far more significant is Tamsin’s acceptance of Callum’s near-total and apparently inexplicable impotence; the couple develop a limited sexual repertoire in response to it, but their general emotional state is one of tacit and occasionally uneasy acceptance.
Claire Lowdon’s serious-minded but nevertheless sparky debut novel can be seen as an extended rebuttal of the secret but abiding anxiety — especially among the youth — that everybody is having more, or better, sex than they are. What if, she asks, nobody is? Not even Chris Kimura, the charismatic soldier Tamsin spent a (chaste) evening with years previously, who suddenly arrives back into her and Callum’s life. He might be able to pull after a blind date in Bella Pasta — Lowdon is unobtrusively good on the non-glamour of London life — but once he’s hooked up with Callum’s obsessionally self-controlled flatmate, Leah, his sex life plummets too.
Left of the Bang is not a didactic novel, but its story certainly mutates from social comedy into something far more disturbing. None of its characters escapes disaster, especially Callum, whose strengthening feelings towards the Home Counties children he teaches Latin and Greek provide the book’s second half with a gripping, horrible tension. The power of the storyline is increased because one of his pupils, the awkward Sophie Witrand, becomes a character in her own right. ‘If he was powerless in his private life,’ reflects Callum, ‘then here, in the classroom, he had supreme control.’ Alas, as the novel demonstrates, control is an illusion that damages us as much as we cherish it.
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