Sarah Lawson has set her enjoyably teasing narrative ‘somewhere in a crease between the pages of the London A-Z’

 bohemian pirate

The Bohemian Pirate
by Sarah Lawson
Paperback: 168 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1479311385
Available via Amazon
http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Bohemian-Pirate-Sarah-Lawson/dp/1479311383

 

 

Although this book describes itself as a novel it is essentially a collection of short stories, packaged as tales told to – or events actually experienced by – a customer in a 1980s coffee shop rather improbably called ‘The Bohemian Pirate’.  (One wonders whether this name is a subtle reference to a genuine out-of-the-way café of the period which metropolitan readers of a certain age are meant to recognize?  One of the later chapters seems to offer hints about this which more knowledgeable readers may be able to pick up.)

The main protagonist is not the narrator but rather the narrator’s brother and so we experience someone telling stories about somebody else hearing stories. This gives an odd, but not unpleasing, distancing effect; and the way that the narrator’s  brother, named Swithin, is re-introduced at the beginning of most chapters rather reminds me of the Sherlock Holmes stories which nearly all open with Watson giving a brief ab initio pen-portrait of the Great Detective. This was necessary for Watson/Conan Doyle because the Holmes stories originally appeared in magazines and each had to stand on its own.  It is not clear, however, that the stories in The Bohemian Pirate have enjoyed any previous publication; and the repeated explanations for Swithin’s presence in the coffee shop might have become a little tedious were it not for the fact that many of them, rather cleverly, bring in small new insights into his character and build up a more interestingly complete picture.

The semi-detached relationships between narrator, protagonist and reader become more complicated about two thirds of the way through the book when the narrator (whom we might have assumed to be Lawson herself) is nudged aside by the arrival in the coffee shop of a new character named Sarah Lawson who claims, with some credibility, to be the author. Some readers will probably be delighted by this playfulness with literary convention; others may be puzzled by the inconsistency in the identity of ‘I’ and wonder why Swithin’s sibling has been given so much to say if (s)he can be so easily and arbitrarily displaced.

The games with narration are evidence of the book’s originality; and there is also quite a bit of originality in the book’s varied episodes. The chapters are mostly self-contained, but there are a few running characters besides Swithin himself.  The proprietors of the café are a group of actors who see it as something to fall back on when they are not in a play. Unfortunately, they seemed to spend a lot of time falling back on it.  A delightfully-named handyman Beaufort Simmons  also appears in several chapters and provides a little thread of mystery.

The chapters are fairly short (typically around 8 pages) and some of the stories are quite slight. Many of them, however – like the one about the woman who stayed too long on the bus – are gently yet accurately observant of human nature. One of the tales turns out to be a good old-fashioned ghost story. And there is a delightfully surreal episode about a man smuggling Monopoly sets into Eastern Europe in an attempt to subvert the Soviet Union.  We also hear of a surprising use for an ice cream van and the sad fate of a swarm of bees.

Lawson is a poet is well as a prose writer and hence she has a neat way with words.  Someone is described as well past the first flush of youth – or even the second or third one.  And in more serious vein, another character speaks of his sister’s suicide as if he hadn’t said these words very much before.  They sounded new and rough on his tongue.  Lawson’s poetic skills may also have come into play in ensuring that the writing within each chapter is lucid and economical.  The book makes a light but very enjoyable read.  It would certainly be an excellent companion while travelling – or indeed while passing time in a coffee shop.

.                                                                                                              Michael Bartholomew-Biggs