By Andy Irwin
Septembers – the debut novel from Birmingham-born writer Christopher Prendergast – charts the experiences of Matt, a young history teacher, through an on-off relationship and unstable career in Sheffield and Birmingham via episodes in the life of Franz von Papen (vice-Chancellor of Germany in the early 1930s). The novel charts a period of downfall in Matt’s life, with insecurities and disasters that span the personal and the professional.
Despite those themes, there is a pervasive tenderness throughout the novel. Matt’s losses, failures and tragedies are handled through his own inherent awkwardness, and measured with the sense that he is not quite fully acknowledging the extent to which bad and strange things are happening to him. He is both passenger and architect on the journey towards decline.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Septembers as a complete work is the distinct lack of optimism at the novel’s end. There is a vague sense of hope, but it is stifled by violence: raw, unforgiving, senseless urban violence – which Prendergast captures with a mesmerizingly woven macabre scene in which Matt and his friend Jaroslav are brutally attacked by a group of teenagers in a Birmingham train station while dressed as Romans.
The protagonist, Matt, is not an entirely convincing character, and perhaps lacks a little integrity – however I would suggest that this may well be what Prendergast is going for. Twenty-first century urban British living is not entirely convincing, and its army of under-30s inhabitants are all a little frayed around the edges, struggling to reconcile the stark contrast of our offering against the lives lived by our parents, who for the most part grew up with more job and life security than we might ever hope to enjoy. In fact, the portrayal of a young British professional today would totally lack integrity were the character to have all their wheels firmly on the tracks.
What Septembers captures most effectively for me is the sense that we are all growing up to be anti-heroes, always itching for something to happen, then lighting the fuse to make something, anything, happen when we are done waiting for the spark. Septembers is a funny, raw encapsulation of a life lived by the clusterfuck that twenty-first century human living can be, Matt experiences life’s knocks through a combination of his own mistakes and the paths laid down for him by others. It is an intelligent plot that seems to lose its way in the final third (like Matt) before being tied up masterfully with a tantalising half-ending.
Christopher Prendergast’s debut novel is an understated triumph, with the gentle narrative voice of its protagonist capturing a vulnerability that he himself seems barely aware of. Septembers gives us the everyman’s insight to urban life, refusing to revert to type and tell a story about a grotesque character in a gruesome concrete world. That mode of postmodern storytelling has outdated itself through saturation, as it ironically began to stifle some of the narratives it was trying to liberate. Prendergast’s style is humane, funny, tragic and confidently deployed – keep an eye out for him.