Jacob Polley, in his novel Talk of the Town (Picador), perfectly captures the claustrophobia and boredom of adolescents on the hinge of adulthood, jarring it into the border-town of his native Carlisle; which, as his protagonist Christopher Hearsey quotes as an opener, ‘stinks’.
The week in which we meet Chris, two major news stories are creating a hotbed of rumours that circulate the town. The first, Chris’s best friend Arthur has gone missing, the second, a homeless man has been brutally burned to death in a park within the city. We hear this unfold through Chris’s worrisome and sensitive interior narrative, thick with a perfectly pitched Carlisle dialect, who inevitably becomes caught up with the wrong crowd. Although he doesn’t have an innocent’s view of the world outside his front door- he knows what happens when you find yourself in the wrong place- he still sets out to look for his best friend, embroiling himself in a sparse world of groups of bored and hopeless men who stalk the town’s borders like hulking Grendels.
Chris finds a companion in his school friend Gill, a girl nearly aware of the power of her own sexuality, enough to use it, without necessarily understanding what ‘it’ is. There is an utterly perfect stretch of the novel which takes place in Gill’s bedroom that is exemplary of Polley’s power to capture the strains and difficulties of adolescence. We watch Chris archive her room like a scientific study, imagining her naked body in numerous places around it, before they lock themselves in an embrace echoing an adulthood that is just around the corner, as Chris worries; ‘As if I’ve swooped outta me own body, I see us locked together… what if Gill is likin the feel of me breath slippin down inside her sweater and the feel of me boner against her? She might even wanna see it.’ One of the most wonderful features of Polley’s narrative is his knack of inhabiting every room and character he describes so wholly, highlighting features that allow us to grasp the context and history of them so quickly and successfully.
Outside, and on their search, Gill and Chris find themselves away from the back roads of the town and travelling into the surrounding hinterland of the Solway Firth. As familiar grey urbanity smudges deftly into agricultural scrubland, we see experience encroaching on innocence, quickly, like a tide. Yet as much as there’s a ‘stink’ around the town that grows well into the novel’s closing pages, Polley’s final triumph in this startlingly relatable novel is the feeling of hope that he manages to retain. After travelling with Chris on his bleak, meandering lurch around the gardens and back alleys of 1980’s Carlisle, like a childish, modern day Joyce, we are left hopeful that Chris will be able to cross the bridge from innocent to adult and escape the mentality of the people who surround him. In a novel constructed on the darkness, inarticulacy and rumour of adulthood, Polley subtly and intelligently maintains the truth of innocence on the cusp of knowing.