The first time my name appeared on the cover of a book was in 2000. I had read Chris Paling’s fifth novel, Newton’s Swing, in manuscript and was asked if I wanted to share my enthusiasm for it with other booksellers. It wasn’t a particularly erudite endorsement – as I recall, I wrote something like I really, really enjoyed it – but Paling’s publicist seemed pleased that there was some enthusiasm out there for a writer whose obvious talents were recognised and understood by his publisher, but had yet to translate into the kind of sales they had hope for him.
Five years later A Town by The Sea (Jonathan Cape) was published – a dark, perplexing and short novel of imagination and guile – which I found was not exactly widely available. On publication day I found just one copy on the shelves of Waterstone’s Piccadilly; a slim hardback with a hefty price tag. It was clear that though the editorial passion for Paling remained, the stark reality was that this wasn’t enough. It was no surprise that for his next book, Paling moved to another publisher.
Those seven novels, taken together, show a writer unafraid to take chances, a septet of books that differ in style, tone, complexity, yet are unified by a precision and understanding of character that few English writers can rival. Paling’s novels do not shout; they talk in a kind of weary whisper, they hint and allude: they are quiet in a way that sticks in the mind long after reading.
Of the seven, After the Raid – a hallucinatory, Graham Greene-tinged meditation on memory and war – and Newton’s Swing – a psychological investigation in the wake of a brutal murder – stand out, for me, as his best work. But it is Paling’s eighth novel, Minding, that I would urge anyone interested in contemporary fiction to read. It is a heartbreaking, devastating novel: a book that is genuinely haunting, and haunted.
Minding (Portobello Books) was nominated for the Mind Book of the Year Award, but how this tale of a cracked and fractured young woman’s relationship with her absent son wasn’t shortlisted for one of the major gongs in 2007 remains a mystery. Paling creates a cast of characters you believe in, characters that do not regularly feature in this kind of fiction: misfits, not in the cool, out-there sense, but in the sense of people who simply do not fit into society’s pre-defined strictures. Jane and Billy are drawn in uncompromising, sometimes harrowing detail, their lives opened up in front of us in all their contradictions and foibles. The Independent called it ‘defiantly uncommercial’ – I think this says more about our tastes than Paling’s.
Minding is not an easy novel, but it does what truly great fiction is meant to: it transports, it engages, it makes you see things in a slightly different way. It proves that Paling is one of our most neglected writers, moored in the darkening waters of the midlist while better known and arguably less talented authors bask out in the sunshine. If there is any justice at all – and for overlooked writers there rarely is – Chris Paling will at some point be rightly hailed as an important English writer. Read Minding and you’ll see why.
Stuart Evers’ debut collection of short fiction, Ten Stories About Smoking, will be published by Picador in 2011. He blogs at Dirty/Realistic.