Chris Connelley  feels the love with a heart- warming tale of everyday folk fighting against all odds

Avid readers of this column may recall a review of Mel Wright’s previous novel, You Can Save Me, which detailed the lives and loves of a mainly middle-aged set of friends trying to eke out something approaching a living in austerity-era Hastings. The storyline centred around the ultimately doomed efforts of one of them, the enterprising rogue Leo, to set up a new business selling goods close to their sell-by-date to people without much money, providing a narrative vehicle to expose the increasingly fragile existence experienced by some at the fag-end of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. Having ‘never had it so good’ in their youth, they reap a less munificent autumn of their days as they stumble towards delayed and often diminished pensions.

The depth of the recession may be long past, but Wright’s cast of coastal irregulars continue to experience the icy blast of precariat insecurity in his latest outing, Roundabout, the third and final part of his Hastings trilogy. Times change, but the dominant themes are enduring, touching upon ageing, friendship, love, loss, survival and identity.

Former good time girl, Abbie, now a full-time carer for once formidable, but now frail Millie, brings to life the isolation, heartache and sense of loss that so often accompanies this role. Her bleak situation is exacerbated by a falling out with her best friend Rita, who, though liberated from the shackles of an exploitative marriage, struggles to maintain her economic self-worth in the cut-throat world of zero- hours contract cleaning. Rita also confronts a fractured relationship with Geordie auto didact, Bill, who, torn between the call of his family in Newcastle and the impossibility of securing decent work ‘down south’, ponders a permanent return to his roots. Even Leo, newly reinvented as an antiques dealer in the Old Town, and with a fashionable new lover in tow, suffers a knock-back significant enough to challenge his instinct for effortless survival.

All of which may suggest Roundabout is a rather grim read, a kind of literary ‘I, Daniel Blake’, the poverty-porn smash-hit movie currently wowing the right-on chattering classes at art house cinemas across the nation. Mercifully, nothing could be further from the truth. Wright writes with warmth, honesty and good humour, deploying his considerable gift for writing conversation to conjure up a recognisable world that is a million miles away from the narrow confines of so much contemporary fiction, defined by just a few fashionable North and West London postcodes. Rather, he occupies a space that is closer to the social realist fiction of the post-war years, or even top of the range soap writing from the golden age of ‘Coronation Street’, where identifiable characters, usually female, drove important topical storylines without succumbing to preachiness.

I devoured Roundabout in just a couple of sittings, and, ultimate compliment this, finished craving much more. Specifically, I want to know if there is more life in the old dog Leo, whether new romances continue to blossom and if, and how, the changes happening in and around Hastings, currently attracting so much media interest as a regeneration hotspot, impact the lives of characters like these.

With Christmas coming, have no doubt. This feel-good page-turner is an affordable stocking filler for anyone who enjoys a good story, loves spotting local venues and who fancies an hour or so away from an excess of escapist candy-coated festive revelry. Go buy it now!

Roundabout by Mel Wright

Deptford Forum Publishing, RRP £6.99, available at Bookbuster for £4.99


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