Angels, Ants and Vermouth

Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2

This is one of my favourite Bible verses. I love Hebrews. It is so different to the other books of the New Testament and the only book in the Bible whose writer is unknown. It’s not impossible that Hebrews could even have been written by a woman. Shock, horror.

The Rigsby-esque landlady in Jonathan Taylor’s novel Entertaining Strangers believes in angels. She also believes in Reiki and the healing effects of wind chimes so we don’t necessarily take her seriously. But angels is a theme that runs throughout, albeit in a subtextual way.

But let’s go back a bit before we look at the novel.

In 2001, a drunk Jonathan Taylor was on his way home when he was approached by a homeless stranger who asked him for food as she hadn’t eaten for 36 hours. He invited Juliet into his home on the condition she didn’t kill him. She ate food, had a bath and slept the night on his bedroom floor. They fell asleep listening to Elgar’s ‘In Smyrna’. She left the next morning. ‘I never saw her again of course, but this book is at least partly because of her.’

Jonathan Taylor’s novel takes its inspiration from his experience with Juliet. Entertaining Strangers is set a few years earlier in 1997, a time on the cusp of the explosion of the digital age, the year a princess died and upturned the stereotype of the British stiff upper lip. The narrator, Jules, homeless and displaced from society and even from time itself, literally lands on the grimy doorstep of a terraced house somewhere in the East Midlands and is brought into the fold – and into a fug-haze of fags and dirt – by a man attired in a satin woman’s dressing gown. Edwin accepts Jules into the house without question, gives him Vermouth and talks at him. Constantly. A stream of consciousness that flows out of his mouth like multi-coloured vomit. Intellectual, confused, musical, ant-obsessed multi-coloured vomit.

Edwin is an eccentric. Or maybe he is bi-polar. Either way he swings from manic to catatonic, either talking, drinking, obsessed with his ant farm or in a torpor. For Edwin, the ant kingdom is the finest example of a utopia, where workers work for the general good, sacrifice themselves for the harmony and survival of the community and generally get on with life without any aggro.

Entertaining Strangers is perhaps a bloke’s novel in that there’s a bit of a bromance going on. Maybe an anti-bromance as there’s no banter, hugs or back-slapping. In fact Edwin and Jules never really have a proper exchange of dialogue. Edwin pontificates on ant culture and quotes from a highbrow world that he aspires to, a world that Jules also understands. But Jules never has the chance to respond. Edwin never listens. Or that is the strong impression he gives. But their relationship forms the central action of the novel. It has echoes of the cult classic Withnail and I but also follows in the tradition of a whole chain of literary and film man-on-man relationships from Spock and Kirk, Buzz and Woody, Forest and Bubba, to Holmes and Watson, Sebastian and Charles, and Huck and Tom.

This is not to dumb down the novel at all, but to big it up: A literary novel, with prose like music. A novel that demands a reader response. A novel whose many many expletives swirl around hurt lives and confused emotions. A novel that deals with the crunchiness of living on the edge. That deals with families. And the way families can pass on their baggage of abusive behaviour and guilt to the next generation. And the one after that…And it is the stranger who falls through time and space through the front door that holds the key to the past.

And then there’s the holocaust of Smyrna 0f 1922. The chapter that goes back to this time is exquisitely written, hideous to contemplate, harrowing and disturbing, with a message  and a massacre that should never be forgotten. I read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides last year which also has this shameful period of history at its heart. Entertaining Strangers is a well-needed reminder, lest we forget.

Entertaining Strangers is published by Salt on 30th September 2012

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