Set in post-war London, What Was Promised opens amid the whirling chaos of Columbia Road Market.
From the first sentence Tobias Hill commands the reader's attention - "why do things always smell more in the cold?" - and we are not released for the rest of the book. Indeed, the energy of this opening, in which we meet the first generation of characters, sets the mood for what follows. We encounter Clarence Malcolm "the banana king", Cyril Noakes, Solly and Dora Lazarus and, most importantly, Michael Lockhart. These opening scenes, and the characters within them, are depicted through the eyes of an omniscient narrator who discusses their traits with a relaxed familiarity.
As the novel unfolds Hill beautifully evokes the way in which the lives of these families intertwine; how memories of their pasts resonate and weave into the present as the years go on.
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Whilst the novel focuses on three families, the story loosely centres on the action of Lockhart. His crime in the first section continues to haunt their lives throughout the rest of the book.
What Was Promised focuses on three specific years, each of which portrays Hill's cast at a specific time - 1948, 1968 and 1988. In such a long book, what is impressive is that the rhythm of each section changes, injecting new life and pace to the story as it progresses. The setting of the sections varies too. Not only are we catapulted forward in time, but also from the East End of London to Jamaica and Italy, amongst others. This tripartite structure allows Hill to explore the effects of the war, and with each section comes new reflections on the themes of immigration, social aspiration and loss.
But the structure of the novel is not what makes this a superb read; its true power lies in Hill's poetic prose. Descriptions are artfully wrought, and throughout, the author's way of seeing consistently surprises, his metaphors exciting while still engaging: "the sky is dull as dead hearth. The sun is desolate. It gives nothing away: no light, no heat, no strength or comfort."
This lyricism is enhanced by the fact that the whole story is narrated in the present tense. At the beginning, the focus on so many different sounds and images is slightly disorientating. We experience the confusing sensations of the market place first hand, along with the main character. However as the pace slows, the present tense allows readers fully to imagine the spaces that Hill describes. We are absorbed into the prose. This becomes especially effective towards the end of the novel, where having lived through the complex emotions of a range of characters, the reader is able really to feel the pains and tensions of the final scenes.
In a book in which the voices of so many individuals are heard, Hill uses his skill at quickly establishing unique and believable characters. The children of the first section, Jem and Floss, are especially well drawn.
When they meet two decades later, the change in their personalities as they have grown from children to adults is excellently conveyed. So too the character of Dora Lazarus, with her unexpected re-entrance into the novel towards the end, embodying all the contradictions, triumphs and flaws of a woman who has lost a son and lived through enormous change.
What Was Promised immerses the reader in the energy of London's east end. The after-affects of the war - the toll that it took on families and on the city itself - are sensitively explored. As Hill shows in the book, life rarely delivers what it promises; this novel, on the other hand, delivers a lot more.