“You know it could be great around here.” Liverpool 1981. Toxteth Riots. Unemployment. Thatcher’s blight in Britain. Decay but yet defiance against the system encapsulated in this city and its citizens. In Paul.
As his beloved Liverpool burns during inner city riots, Paul meets two people who will change his life. Nadezhda, an elusive poet who has fallen out of fashion and her daughter Sarah, with whom he shares an instant intense passion and love. But in the summer where Paul and his friends are moving on from school to jobs or university, through teenage angst to adult reality, their meetings with Sarah and her family in a huge house which entertains all manner of bohemian society of the past and present in drunk and drugs and stories, an incident takes place which will shake all their lives.
The novel is sweeping – and in a sense too sweeping – as we move from the early -80s Liverpool, via Nadezhda’s mysterious background in war-torn Europe, through Paul’s work as a journalist in the manner war torn countries that have featured as major historical incidents in the later 20th/early 21st century. You perhaps will need an insight into many recent historic/political events to keep up. The author is also a journalist that has reported from all over the world for major news agencies and papers so obviously recounts these scenes with often searing reality. He is a Liverpudlian, although a staunch Everton fan (the best Liverpool team!) so his descriptions of the city are authentic, searing and true to life for the many who call it home, and (as the title implies) those that have come to need to call it home.
But the inclusion of a huge list of historic incidents tended to blur later passages because overall this is a love story. A coming -of- age novel that had a hint of Sally Rooney’s Normal People but with a far more adult viewpoint of a young man’s awareness of life and love developing before us and with which we are entirely engaged. However, after the inclusion of one of the UK’s largest football disasters and its links, both personal and professional to Paul then Paul’s move to Yugoslavia/Kosovo I did feel a few political points were being made that perhaps veered from the core of the story.
Overall this is a gripping debut novel ( Corbett had a best-selling factual tale of goalkeeper Neville Southall but has not tried fiction before) It is as if he has so much to include in this novel that the line of thread that links Paul to Sarah is overstretched and left for years to once again entwine the couple. I liked the male friendships that link Paul back to Liverpool and the pub of course! but felt although there is always a ‘friend’ who lets you down but lingers, the world of Christopher became just a little too trapped with events to be believable.
Above all Liverpool is a character in this story. A city I love too. It wears its heart on its sleeve and the people that live within it are always proud and local and patently full of creativity beyond the football field. That Nadezhda is a poet (note poetry, music, art all flourishing in those Mersey environs) brings us into her world and to the culture of the place -Liverpool flourished so much after being the City of Culture, that we follow the path of Paul and the place of which he escapes but which he is always drawn back too to complete his emotions. It is also an interesting insight and view on differing parents – good, bad and everything in between. How they can make us – or break us.
As a personal read I enjoyed this, particularly the twists and turns of the central character and the unfolding of the past identities of those he loves and loses. At one point someone says “Truth dies by the minute” and in so many scenes the lies do come to overwhelm the characters with life changing conclusions. It is intense and of its time – although I felt it veered off slightly with more recent links to Paul being at ‘the wrong place at the right time’. But overall a thoughtful and interesting plot with engaging characters against a backdrop of a great place from where so many stories are made.
Book groups may want to try this with an interest in the real events being portrayed and compare their younger lives and loves to the way Paul negotiates his life to today. There is no doubt Paul deserves a happy ending -follow his life in this mystery love letter to Liverpool- to find out if he does!
Review by Philipa Coughlan
Published by LIGHTNING BOOKS LTD Imprint of Eye Books Ltd
MAY 2021 HARDBACK ISBN 978-1-7856-3259-4