A Keeper

Graham Norton

Hodder & Stoughton, £20

Review by Brian Beacom

GREAT expectations abound of Graham Norton’s second work of fiction, given his previous effort’s success and that his autobiography, So Me, demonstrated a real talent for description, clarity and honesty.

But what would A Keeper offer? It all begins promisingly; the BBC radio and TV presenter provides colour and well-turned imagery as he tells the tale of Elizabeth Keane who returns to Ireland from New York after the death of her mother.

He takes us inside the mind of a single mother who is conflicted by the break up of her marriage and the impact this has had on her son. But we come to realise she is confused by her feelings towards her late mother, Patricia, who was also a single mum.

Or was she?

Back in Ireland, Elizabeth wonders who her mother really was; had she ever had a long-term relationship? What had happened to her father?

Elizabeth’s journey takes on a new twist when she visits her old home and discovers a stash of letters in the back of a wardrobe that reveals more than she could have imagined.

Elizabeth reads the first letter which grabs her attention. It’s addressed to her mum and the opening line reads: “Dear Lonely Leinster Lady.” It emerges that her mother had been placing Lonely Hearts ads in the papers and the letter was from Edward, a farmer.

Edward wrote, “Because of milking it would be difficult for me to get up to see you but I would be happy to meet you in Cork City for lunch or even a cup of tea.”

Ah, the heady romance of it all. Was Edward Elizabeth’s father?

The writer flashes back to reveal Patricia’s story, of how she came to meet Edward. And we learn how it was far from romantic; a desperate spinster meets with a shy widower who shakes her hand on first meeting.

As the story develops, and we see more of Patricia and Edward, Norton, it seems, can’t contain his natural impishness. “She wondered if he might try to kiss her again, but then without warning he simply reached out his right hand and gently squeezed her breast. He moved his hand and said; 'I’d better get on with the milking.' Edward turned and walked away leaving Patricia to ponder if it had been her modest bosoms that had prompted him to seek out the heaving udders in the milking parlour.”

This crash of gears makes you wonder about the writer’s intent; to take us on a serious, sentimental trip down memory line, to provide insight into the minds of lost souls? Whatever the intention, it distracts the reader.

That’s not to say the story of Patricia and the heavy-handed farmer with straw for a brain isn't compelling. We slowly discover this relationship is far darker than we could have imagined. And when Edward’s mother enters the picture, Norton’s tale takes us into the realms of Misery horror.

The effect of this, however, is to flatten the impact of the contemporary plotline. We observe the sadness permeating Elizabeth's own life, how her romantic life had failed, and her complex relationship with her husband and her son, back in America. It is revealed why her son Zach isn’t with his dad on holiday: “A father found, a son lost.”

But we don’t invest too much because the real story is taking place forty years ago.

Norton turns some nice phrases, but in telling two stories he seems to have taken on rather too much. The modern-day strand is over-populated with extraneous characters and superfluous detail. The writer certainly comes up with surprises here, but doesn’t give enough attention to the arc of the story to make them come alive.

There is an awful lot of time spent by Elizabeth asking the same “Who’s the daddy?” question of lots of different people. We are also left to wonder what the theme is. Are we to consider the cliched notion that history repeats itself? Is it about how we are so desperate to find love that common sense flies out the window? Or about how we don’t consider the lives and the minds of our parents until it’s too late?

Norton suggests the questions but the lights of revelation are as dim as an oil lamp. For a truly gripping tale read his first autobiography.