Sunday, September 10, 2023

John Niven's O Brother might be his best book yet


One of my favourite fiction writers has just published his best book yet.

The twist though is it’s not a novel, or a screenplay, of which John Niven has earned fame and riches, but a true life harrowing account of the most dramatic event in his life; the death of his younger brother Gary in a hospital in Ayrshire in the west of Scotland in 2010.

O Brother is astonishingly well written, a breathtaking and pulsating roller coaster. But here’s the thing that I really didn’t expect; it’s also really very funny in parts.

In no way is it a misery memoir, but it succeeds on so many levels because it weaves in so many themes about families, class, culture and the chaos of modern life. 

Before his writing career took off John Niven was a talent spotter for a record label, which provided him with the raw material for his outstanding breakthrough novel Kill Your Friends, the rip roaring tale of 1997 Britpop excess, which I bought for my son Joe as part of his essential reading list for studying the Music Business at University.

In that era Niven (as he’s popularly known) notoriously turned down the chance to sign Coldplay and Muse, thinking the world already had one Radiohead and didn’t need another. Instead he backed Mogwai to the hilt, but also Gavin Clark of Sunhouse, one of my absolute favourite British singer songwriters, but who was (to put it politely) way before his time and out of step with the crazy Britpop times.

I‘ve seen John do author events before, but last week at Waterstones in Manchester an packed audience including Badly Drawn Boy, heard John and the writer Dave Haslam open up about the book and the process of writing it.

I asked him a couple of questions and had a chat to him at the end.

Honestly, I could have listened to him all night, but as we were chatting after he’d signed my book I looked over my shoulder and saw a queue of about fifty people glaring at me and quietly urging me to jog along.

I think that such was the familiarity and accessibility of his writing that it feels like getting back in touch with an old pal.

It’s clearly not just me he has that affect on. A few years ago I took the eldest son to see him with the writer and broadcaster Stuart Maconie and like the latest event, was a brilliant evening, full of great stories about the music business, the film industry and the dire state of the world. But we were at the back of the queue that night and had to bail as people really wanted to talk to him. 

That night I took home a copy of Niven's novel, Kill 'em All, the follow up to Kill Your Friends in that particular comic universe, which I really, really enjoyed, but I described as like a band cashing in on a greatest hits tour before getting back to the studio and banging out another classic.

The novels before that one had been getting progressively more ambitious and expansive, Straight White Male and No Good Deed, really impressed on me how he'd progressed as a writer - observant, dark, but not without sensitivity. 

Yet seeing him up close backed up the point Stuart Maconie made - how can this affable, kind, funny man I have before me, who I know well, create a dastardly character with such an authentic and believable inner narrative as Stelfox?

It’s the writer’s skill. Having a good ear, as the late great Martin Amis put it. 

He spoke at the event last week about the writer’s desk being the place where he has time to think and reflect, in the way religious people pray. An outlet for contemplation, but also to replay back at the world as observed by the writer’s eye and ear.

There’s a passage in O Brother where he describes taking out his notebook in the bathroom of the hospital having just witnessed Gary’s demise and recorded all the details.

Here’s a line I have written myself on more than one occasion: this is John Niven's best book and marks his real growing maturity as a writer.

Music Therapy column from the Tameside Reporter and Glossop Chronicle

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