Girl 20: Kingsley Amis

Good afternoon readers, I have another 101 things in 1001 days review for you. I have been really enjoying the classic books I’ve been reading and after discussing the challenge with a number of friends and family I have added a couple of recommendations to said list. Despite Girl 20 being a book I really thought I would enjoy (the blurb read right up my street,) it’s taken me far longer than expected to finish this book. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it but it missed the mark in terms of my expectations; I wonder if you agree?

Life in London means glamour, fashion, finance and art. Consider then an ageing conductor, husband in an unsatisfactory marriage, father to an unhappy brood. When a young woman responds to his overtures, he breaks the marriage and bursts the family…alas, everyone loses in this drama, for nothing puts people together again.

Kingsley Amis has again written a story of infidelity, destructive selfishness, and blatant stupidity and managed to make it hilarious. The basic story centres on a symphony conductor who, in an attempt to reawaken his lust for life, is having an ill-advised affair with a girl one-third his age. As you might expect, the disasters this creates in his life are quite entertaining. The narrator, an upper-crust music critic, speaks of the rapid disintegration of the conductor’s family and his own love life with such detached snobbery, that even mundane events come alive with vivid humour. Especially funny is his description of a date that includes attending a wrestling event. One warning: Amis offers no clean-cut solutions, but turns expectations upside-down. The last page of Girl,20 comes as a surprise that will leave you wishing for more.

So the book follows in the rather forlorn footsteps of our narrator Douglas Yarnell, a music critic, as he follows and tries to put right the rather absurd main character Sir Roy Vandervane. See Sir Roy is currently embarking in a rather questionable relationship with the truly horrid character Sylvia Meers a seventeen year old, despite Roy’s much older age of 54. See, the title of the book relates most to Roy’s preference to date a girl less than a third of his age. We follow the unlikely pair as they muddle through, Douglas trying desperately to please every single member of the Vandervane family including as above Sir Roy, Kitty his long suffering wife  and Penny his daughter from another marriage and sort out their ‘messes,’ with very little success.

So a rather crude description of the blurb by myself in this review but I found it a little tough to really pull together because this book is less about the plot and more about the characters. Amis’s talent is his ability to really convey the world around him with a piercingly cold and accurate eye. Each of the characters, although noticeably dislikeable is told in the cold pure light of truth and each is perfectly described. Roy is an absurd man, constantly muttering hypocritical and absurdly pompous and self-indulged lies. Douglas is a soft and malleable character easily plied to the demands of the other characters. Slyvia is a truly disturbed attention seeking female who is truly horrid and so absurd that her ‘charm’ mirrors Sir Roy’s need to reawaken his youth. These characters are the foundations of the plotline and through each of them being captured honestly, it means that when placed in the situations that Amis dreams up it becomes a little comedic despite the constant sadness of the storyline. Douglas throughout is constantly pulled between what he believes to be the moral standpoint to make and also how he can support each of the divided family members due his compassionate character profile. Underneath the awfulness of each of the character is a sense of deep and impenetrable compassion.

The book does discuss a number of political messages especially in terms of Roy’s hypocritical sense of ‘socialism,’ but I took more of a message from the book. Throughout we get the constant mix of the two main characters. Roy is a trend chasing conductor constantly trying to prove his youth in both the burgeoning pop music he tries to re-create which fails abysmally and in his dating of Sylvia. Douglas is a critic of music, but as we continue through the book we see his constant attempts to prove his use to everyone. Through this we see that he is unwilling to criticise on anything other than music; he lacks an opinion. Both are empty ways to live a life, and for Amis the two men are easy targets; both are dishonest in their own evaluations of what is important in life and it leaves them open to sadness and regret and along the way many of the other innocent characters Kitty and Penny are hurt also. Towards the end this is resolved but it takes till the final page turn to really sum everything up.

Saying all this I felt the book fell a little flat and it’s most probably because despite being quite a compassionate tale I didn’t feel for any of the characters. I understand that this was ultimately what Amis was trying to convey (I think) but for me it meant on finishing I thought right, what next? See that’s not really what you want to feel when finishing a book but that’s how it left me. I’m glad I read it, but not quite what I was expecting.

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