He Wants, by Alison Moore, tells the story of Lewis Sullivan, a retired teacher who has lived his entire life in the same Midlands village. A widower, he is visited daily by his daughter, Ruth, and follows a predictable routine. On Sundays he walks with his elderly father, Lawrence, from the latter’s care home to church. On most other days he will walk to a local pub for a half of shandy and more interesting food than Ruth brings. Lewis misses his wife’s cooking. His restricted lifestyle is not what he once aspired to but he recognises that it was his inability to make life-changing decisions, to take risks, that has led him to this insular old age.
In taut and spare prose, Lewis’s past is revealed. As a child he dreamed of being a hero but never found the opportunity to act out the events he played over and over in his head. An avid reader, he regarded himself as a disappointment to his father who had tried to encourage a more adventurous spirit. Now he in turn observes his coddled grandchild and worries about the boy’s anxiety when encouraged to undertake any outdoor activity.
When Lewis was eighteen he experienced two pivotal events. Lawrence took him to see the preacher Billy Graham in Manchester, where they stayed with a couple they met at the event. Lewis also befriended Sydney Flynn, a local boy his age who was willing to rebel against his parents’ strictures. The pair’s time together was short lived but significant. Both sets of parents regarded the boy their son occasionally hung out with as a damaging influence.
The author’s writing is imbued with shadows and inference. There are shocking moments when it is made clear the role a secondary character is playing. The lives exposed are steeped in melancholy, the wanting and realisation that life offers few second chances. Conforming to parental and societal expectations comes with a price tag.
Moore has long been one of my favourite authors and this work once again confirms why I hold her in such esteem. She is a master at capturing the darkness lurking withing the everyday, of the damage carried by those who appear ordinary, that they suppress but cannot escape.
He Wants is published by Salt.