Scotland in the 1980s. Thatcherism, building booms, standing on the dole. The Smiths, drugs, idolising Ian Curtis, wiling away the day at the Jobcentre. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before?
Andrew O’Hagan is an accomplished Scottish novelist with Booker nominations and a ghostwriting credit for Julian Assange under his belt, but his new work Mayflies makes me think of one of my favourite British phrases: “it does what it says on the tin”.
Short-lived youth, rock n’ roll, a meagre shelf life–the novel follows James and his explosive friendship with Tully in mid-80s Scotland, defined by a fateful trip to Manchester to see the biggest bands of the day. Years later, far removed from his rock n’ roll past, James hears from Tully for the first time in years. It unfolds more-or-less how you expect a book like this to, with a lot of Scottish flair and musings about what could’ve been when you were eighteen and had the world at your feet.
The novel is poetic and the attention to detail is clear here–I did really enjoy the opening chapters telling the story of James and Tully’s trip to Manchester and idolisation of Manchester idols like Johnny Marr and New Order, with a fateful visit to the Hacienda. If you were alive in this era (or have good music taste), you’ll probably love this section. But it accomplishes a lot of the same things that “Fagan”, a recent episode of The Crown, did: exposing the class divides and shortcomings of Thatcher-era Britain and exploring the particularly British construction of masculinity, power, and identity. Except “Fagan” only took an hour to do it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The second half of the novel is where this really started to fall apart for me. I would say spoiler alert, but honestly, this was the least surprising plot point out of any book I read this year: Tully gets in touch to let him know he has terminal cancer. Cue the inevitable live-life-to-the-fullest montage and a few mentions of Dignitas, and…. I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t connect with this. Is it because I’m not in the same demographic as the characters? Or is just that the development of the characters felt so rooted in O’Hagan’s own life? (He has admitted the James/Tully friendship is based on one of his own, and it shows, considering half the dialogue feels like inside jokes.) Or is it just that I tend to not really like tearjerkers? Maybe it’s a combo of all three.
Had this only focused on the 1980s-set scenes, I think this would’ve been a much stronger novel–the entire time I was reading this, I just couldn’t feel that any of it was written for me.
Thank you to NetGalley and Faber and Faber for the review copy.
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