In American fiction, the lines of genre are regularly blurred so that characters in the writings of ‘dirty realists’ like Nelson Algren, Harry Crews, John Fante and Charles Bukowski can comfortably inhabit the same world as those of crime fiction writers such as James M Cain, Jim Thompson and Charles Wilford. This, of course, is a very good thing.
With British fiction, perhaps because of the yoke of the class system and prissy academia, that doesn’t seem to happen so much. But within the recent sub-genre of Brit Grit, things are changing. A lot of these new hard-hitting writers have as much in common with Irvine Welsh and Allan Sillitoe as they do with Ted Lewis and Derek Raymond. This, of course, is a very good thing.
Which brings me to Ian Ayris’ brilliant John Sissons novels, Abide With Me and April Skies. These are books with balls and brains and heart.
In Abide With Me – set in 1975– Johnny Sissons is a young boy from the East End of London. Johnny’s family are normal, very likeable and very close. And they are getting by as best they can in sometimes difficult times. Johnny, like his father, has an exhilarating love of West Ham football club, a passion that beats throughout the novel like a heartbeat.
Johnny’s neighbour, Kenny, however, doesn’t have such luck – his home-life his heartbreakingly grim. Abide With Me is a book about their friendship. About loyalty, family, poverty. It’s about doing the right thing. And about making mistakes and facing up to them.
It is an incredibly involving book. As we watch Johnny and Kenny grow up and head toward a life of crime like dishwater down a plughole, we are with them all the way. Ayris’ gripping, gritty, beautiful novel is full of warmth, wit, excitement, comedy and tragedy. An uncompromised chunk of social realism,
Its sequel, April Skies, is set in ’90s London. John Sissons is out of the slammer and trying to get by, working at a market stall. When he loses his job, he gets a job at a door production factory and his luck starts to change. But is it for the better? April Skies is marvellous. Full of realistic, well-drawn characters, great dialogue, sharp twists and turns, and with a strong sense of place and time. Nerve-wracking and heart-breaking, tense and touching – April Skies is a Brit Grit classic.