Blair James – Bernard and Pat (Corsair, 2021)
“Before Dad died we went to Grandma’s on Thursdays but after Dad died we went to McDonald’s instead.”
This line, along with many others from Bernard and Pat, has haunted me ever since I first read it. It sits on the corner of something very profound, swinging its legs, but never quite commits to jumping off.
This is a novel where we’re always on the edge of something. Some big revelation is always around the corner, peeking out but unseen. It’s the sort of novel that you feel certain that other people have misunderstood, even though you might not know anyone else who’s read it.
Sold under Little Brown’s LGBT label, Corsair, Blair James’ Bernard and Pat promises, on its cover, a tale of childhood traumas and subsequent repressions. Psychological damage and innocence exploited. Set in the North, it has all the makings of yet another misery memoir.
And yet it transcends its premises, overleaps them in fact. Perhaps even transgresses.
There is a dangerous uncertainty to James’ writing voice. It prefers simple syntax and loose grammar. At times it’s recognisably faux naïve, reflecting the child to whom the action is occurring.
At other times, however, we are treated to long, loose diatribes red with sex and violence. Bloody words that turn her faux naïve style into something else. Something reminiscent of Ann Quin.
The landscape of Bernard and Pat is, like its language, both familiar and unfamiliar. School playgrounds, McDonald’s, a series of aunties and uncles with their names bolted together in pairs – Lyn and Sandra, Bernard and Pat – and those late 90s thrills: WWF wrestling, Ab Fab, The Neverending Story.
We could be in any Northern town, small or large. In fact we’re in Salford, although there’s nothing specifically Salfordian about it.
Instead, we inhabit a sort of Peter Kay dreamscape. But where Kay, the King of Northern comics, can find a laugh in every lightbulb; James, the Quin of the North, will find something unsettling.
What are we to make of the fat dinner lady who sat our little protagonist down on her knee every day so she could cry out all her tears? All James tells us about it is that “dinner” is now called “lunch”. An obtuse evasion if ever there was one. The book is full of them.
The whole narrative of Bernard and Pat is a dance of evasion and confrontation. It is constructed in a series of short sections, each taking a jumping-off point and chasing it until an epiphany is in sight. Then, at the last moment, we break off, leaving things still not quite uncovered.
In this way, the novel does serve as a representation of trauma, repression, forgetting and remembering. It does what it promises. But it also, in a larger sense, shows us life. Life in the raw, in the midst of the mundane.
It shows us that it’s not what you observe that makes a life, but how you observe it.