Thursday 9 May 2019

The Breezes

Having enjoyed reading Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, I decided that, if I happened to see another of his, I'd probably try it. Sure enough, a week or so later, I spotted not one but two O'Neills sitting there in the same charity shop where I'd happened on Netherland. As is my usual practice these days, I chose the shorter – The Breezes, a black comedy dating from 1995 (13 years before Netherland).
  Described by the TLS as 'a hilarious chronicle of life's crappiness', it is indeed that, but it's done with some depth and real tenderness. Told in the first person by John Breeze, a man who might uncharitably be described as a failed chair-maker, it revolves largely around his father, a hapless railway manager and would-be amateur football referee (the only ref ever to have been sent off). Pa Breeze is a man of resilient and optimistic spirit, eager to think the best of everyone and everything, despite what the world has done to him.
  'Fourteen years ago,' the novel begins, 'my mother, whose name was Mary Elizabeth Breeze, was killed by lightning, and you may think that my father's quota of misfortune would have been used up once and for all on that violent afternoon. If so, you are mistaken...'  Mistaken indeed, as, in the short span of time in which the story unfolds, misfortunes rain down relentlessly on the undeserving Pa's head. It would be unbearable if it wasn't so funny – O'Neill shows a real talent for comedy here, the particular kind of comedy that mingles tragedy and farce. Happily, after all the strands of the plot knit together into a grand tragicomic climax and Pa finally hits rock bottom, glimmers of light and even hope appear. A kind of catharsis has been achieved, and life can go on...
 The odd thing about The Breezes is that, to me at least, it read like an American novel, specifically a Jewish-American novel – and yet no one in it is Jewish, and the setting is somewhere in England. I only realised this when I noted that the football being described was soccer, not American football, and that the railway network Pa Breeze works for could only be English. The setting is an English coastal town near to an industrial city with a big-time football team, perhaps in the North, but it's hard to tell; it just didn't feel like England. Nor did the characters, or even the narrator, feel English. When I heard the dialogue in my head, it was in American accents. A very odd effect, but it in no way detracted from my enjoyment of this tight and accomplished black comedy.
  And now I'm taking a break from fiction for a little while. The charity shop's latest gift to my bookshelves, bought today, is the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, which will keep me busy – and, I hope, entertained – for quite some time. Also I have a (non-fiction) book to review, and I've just begun rereading Nabokov's brilliant Gogol.


  1. You have very high class charity shops. Ours are full of wall to wall airport novels. I'm imagining the knick-knacks are Meissen and Fabergé too.

  2. No, they're mostly tat and bad books Guy – it's just that these little nuggets keep turning up, don't know from where. One of the local British Heart Foundation shops has become a bit of a book specialist, and both Oxfams deliver the goods surprisingly often. Alas we have no second-hand bookshop as such...

  3. When I was a boy Southsea had 5 bookshops (2 of them secondhand) We now have none. A raft of Charity shops, yes...