In this novel, Ms Birch tells the story of a Northern working class family, a tale that stretches from just after the First World War onwards over three generations. In choosing this theme, she immediately sets herself a problem and raises a question in her reader’s mind. How will she say something that sets itself apart from the works of Catherine Cookson and all the other gritty generational saga novels that can be found tightly-packed on the fiction returns trolley of any public library?
The answer is, not as clearly as she might have done. Withink the stream of events in the family’s history there are memories and episodes that give tantalising suggestions of impending insight: British soldiers on the Western front let a young, scared German prisoner rejoin his comrades; a father implores his son to avoid serving in the forthcoming Second World War; soldiers in Malaya deal roughly with civilian looters, but are ashamed when they accidentally kill the cat they’ve been playing with. Without turning the novel into a series of lectures or sermons, such material could have been worked up into searching - possibly disturbing - reflections on relationships, politics and human nature. Instead we simply get a breathless succession of episodic twists and turns of family fortune.
What else do we get? Name-checks abound to help fix the story within history’s time frame: a Mosley march in Manchester, the music press changing its subject from jazz to pop, The Army Game and Hancock’s Half Hour on the telly, the Beatles making it big. They show that the writer has done her (pretty elementary) homework, and are a gesture towards giving the novel its necessary period flavours, but then we’re used to this from television dramas. We expect almost as a right that, say, a Victorian street scene includes the obligatory Hansom cab, or that anything to do with the 1950s features teddy boys strutting their winkle-pickers as they rock around the clock to Bill Haley. It’s a permissible device, but a limited, familiar one.
It’s difficult not to feel that Ms Birch - or her editors - followed a safety first policy here (best not to give the readers who expect a cosy ‘Eeh bah goom lass’ period piece anything too taxing). But ideas are waiting to be explored in this book, and the writing has moments when it grabs you by the shoulder - an atmospheric depiction of a military patrol in the jungle during the Malaya Emergency makes you feel sticky with heat, alert to every sound, or too-quiet moment of silence, that might be the last thing you hear. Had Ms Birch really let rip, this book could not just have been a satisfying narrative, but a story that helped give new depths to the saga genre.