So much of the writing I see—even the good writing—isn’t connected to anything but itself. It seems to have come from a vacuum: the author knows the page, the words know the page, but neither of them have any association with the wider world. As a result, there’s nothing for me as a reader to carry away from the book. The prose is polished and utterly disposable.
The best fiction, on the other hand—the stuff that actually does matter—addresses our perceptions of the world around us, inspires us to have our own ideas, and brings us into a dialogue. To put it simply, the difference between competent fiction and worthwhile fiction is the difference between having dinner with a friend who talks knowledgeably about himself, and having dinner with a friend who talks knowledgeably about the world.Charles Lambert, one suspects, would address rather broader issues than his own moustache over the cacio e pepe. It’s true of his blog, and it’s certainly true of Little Monsters, his debut novel, which was published last year in hardback and last month in paperback… giving me a timely excuse to review it.
Little Monsters is a story about refugees, which is also timely—perhaps more so this year than last. The story is split between protagonist Carol’s childhood as a refugee from a broken family in 1960s Britain, and modern Italy, where Carol is volunteering as an English teacher in a “welcoming” centre for asylum seekers. (For more about the increasingly nasty situation with immigrants in Italy at the moment, I’ll again direct you to Lambert’s blog, but think “fear-mongering poster campaigns, government-sponsored vigilante gangs”.)
Lambert’s writing is elegant and observant. Within the first few chapters of Little Monsters, it’s clear that he’s been out in the world, and he’s brought us back news about how we work as human beings:
Sometimes I think there is only one authentic loss, and the rest, the other deaths and departures, are echoes of it: we learn how to deal with loss just once, then apply what we have learnt until it becomes a sort of skill. But if this is true, it must be the nature of the first loss that determines how we handle later ones, and this is what frightens me.
The novel is narrated by Carol during the Italian years, as she recollects her childhood experiences as an unwelcome addition to her aunt’s family past and uses them to inform, and perhaps to direct, her actions in the present, when she is working with refugees while still being something of one herself.
The language is a little poetic and rather wistful, without ever going too far. (Lambert started out as a poet and is in control of his words.) He draws the world around his characters with an almost obsessive eye for detail and for the nuances of human behaviour, an obsession which he—or Carol—is aware of, and knows how to limit:
When I think about those years, I am struck by how much detail I remember. Jozef connects it to my fondness for paintings in which each square inch of canvas is treated with the same attention, each leaf and flower and distant tower given the same care as the face of the Madonna, the dimpled hands of the child as it reaches up towards its mother or out towards the artist. ‘Detail renders visible,’ Jozef says, and of course he’s right. Excess of detail, though, can have the opposite effect. If detail renders visible, too much detail can reduce invisibility to indifference. It levels everything, cuts everything down to size.
And so we have the minutiae of Carol’s attempts to adjust to and shape her surroundings, but other information, like exactly how her aunt’s husband in the 60s has become Carol’s lover today, is left out entirely.
At one point in the reading, I had trouble because I actually did want to hear more of the others’ viewpoints: more from Carol’s aunt, who takes her in but aggressively, cruelly; more from the Italians whose country the refugees at the camp are moving into. But what started out as an intended criticism must end up as a compliment: telling those other stories in any more detail isn’t the job that Little Monsters has set itself. I’d just been drawn into the dialogue; I’d started to ask questions and raise my own points, no longer about the novel but about the world it addressed. My pasta had grown cold, and Little Monsters had proven its worth.