Holding by Graham Norton review – surprisingly sweet

It rains and everyone is lonely, but the chatshow host’s debut is an enjoyably unblarneyfied vision of rural Ireland

What an odd, charming little book this is. Written by a famous comedian, but not particularly funny, nor meant to be; set in a kind of frozen-in-aspic 1970s, with the odd non-working mobile phone; Graham Norton’s first novel presents an utterly unblarneyfied vision of rural Ireland which makes it seem dreary, sad and miserable, yet still draws you in. I have absolutely no idea who or what it’s for, apart from people who couldn’t bear rural Ireland in the 70s and are glad they don’t live there any more, which may or may not include Norton himself.

The novel is set in Duneen, an unpretty corner of Ireland where “time didn’t pass … it seeped”. The hero is Sergeant PJ Collins, an underworked local garda. He is a man whose entire life has been blighted by his own fatness – until a long-buried skeleton is dug up on a construction site and he stumbles upon a Midsomer Murders-style mystery. There are several other profoundly damaged central characters: downtrodden Mrs Meany, three mysterious spinster sisters and Brid, an alchoholic. But you warm to them all. The book is thoughtfully done, by a writer who really cares about them.

It rains, it seems, constantly in Duneen, and every single person there is unutterably lonely and melancholy and filled with bitterness and regret. It’s a bit like reading a novel-length version of “Eleanor Rigby”. For an Irish novel partly set in the past, though, it is blessedly free of priests, nuns and lower-deck-of-the Titanic-style hijinks. There’s also no evidence of a ghost writer, a fact one gathers partly from endearingly effortful phrases such as “the streetlights bled the shadow of [the fox’s] tail along the pavement behind him like a dark cloak”, and partly because a ghost writer might have suggested occasionally stepping up the pace a bit.

But it remains a highly enjoyable, very readable book. There isn’t a breath of whimsy, and Norton doesn’t have the usual comedian-novelist’s urge to pepper every page with gags (or the opposing tendency of standups such as Ben Elton and Rob Newman, who in their novels feel the need to display their issue-led Serious Learning at every turn).

There are of course occasional sparks of Nortonesque wit – I liked the flashily dressed detective from Cork, who everyone secretly thinks is a total prick – but on the whole it is a gentle read. Norton has a trait which is unusual (and possibly undesirable) in a novelist: he treats all his characters with kindness, even the baddies.

I have unusually bad form when it comes to predicting which books will be giant successes (Harry Potter seemed a bit too middle-class to me in 1997; Fifty Shades of Grey not hot at all in 2012), but I probably wouldn’t bet the house on this one. On the other hand, if it comes your way, you might be surprised by its sweetness; this is Graham Norton as Thoughtful Agony Uncle and Empathetic Radio 2 host rather than acerbic Sparkly Friday Night Frontsman, and absolutely none the worse for that.

Holding is published by Hodder & Stoughton. To order a copy for £16.40 (RRP £20) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Jenny Colgan

The GuardianTramp

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