Thursday, 4 November 2021

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

  

Publisher: Coronet

362 pages

Book Club read

 

Blurb

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is shattered by a terrible accident. Young Connor is one of the survivors, but staying among the angry and the mourning is more than he can bear. He leaves the only place he knows, taking his secrets with him.

But the unspoked longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind will not be silenced. And before long, Connor will have to confront his past.

 

Review

 Careful: This review contains spoilers

Honestly? I find the blurb I copied from the back cover of the paperback rather insufficient. When I marked the book on Goodreads, I found the following book description and it works a lot better for me.

 

In this “compelling, bighearted, emotionally precise page-turner” (Sunday Times), the New York Times bestselling writer and acclaimed television host explores the aftermath of a tragedy on a small-town to illuminate the shame and longing that can flow through generations—and how the secrets of the heart cannot stay buried forever.

It is 1987 and a small Irish community is preparing for a wedding. The day before the ceremony, a group of young friends, including the bride and groom, are involved in an accident. Three survive. Three are killed.

The lives of the families are shattered and the rifts between them ripple throughout the small town. Connor survived, but living among the angry and the mourning is almost as hard as carrying the shame of having been the driver. He leaves the only place he knows for another life, taking his secrets with him. Travelling first to Liverpool, then London, he eventually makes a home—of sorts—for himself in New York, where he finds shelter and the possibility of forging a new life.

But the secrets—the unspoken longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind—will not be silenced. Before long, Connor will have to confront his past.

A powerful and timely novel of emigration and return, Home Stretch demonstrates Norton’s keen understanding of the power of stigma and secrecy—and their devastating effect on ordinary lives.


Now for my thoughts:

I have to be honest and start by saying that it took me a few chapters to fully get into this story. Initially, it felt as if I was told far less than I needed to know in order to appreciate what exactly was going on. As it turned out, I was right. What was more, that was exactly what I should be feeling. This story is cleverly composed in such a way that the truth about what really happened and about Connor and Martin, in particular, is only revealed slowly by means of small hints that eventually build up to huge truths.

This story broke my heart several times. It starts with the day of the crash and that in itself was a devastating scene. What follows just makes matters worse. Poor Connor is basically banished from the place where he grew up, only to find himself alone and lost again not much later when his true nature is discovered by one of his housemates in Liverpool.

Which brings me to one aspect of the story that made me both sad and furious. To this day there are those who hate what they are themselves so much that they will take it out on others who are exactly like them. I guess beating up yourself is all but impossible, whereas unleashing that anger on others is relatively easy, but that doesn’t make that form of self-hatred less horrific and devastating.

To think that young Connor would rather have people thinking that he’d killed three other people through reckless driving than have them find out that he’s gay is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever read. Especially since I have no doubt that for all too many (young) people the fear of being ‘outed’ is so deep and ingrained that they would rather be seen as something – anything – else, no matter how despicable.

But, the flipside of Connor’s banishment and him being forced to find his own feet at a very early age means that his journey made for fascinating reading. The secrets from the past hold him back for so long; he avoids any and all contact with the family he left behind in Ireland for decades. But, while he goes through ups and downs and it takes him a very long time to become his own man rather than what he thinks others want him to be, it is an interesting and eye-opening journey.

All characters in this story are flawed. For a long time, everybody in this book allows their fears, prejudices, and insecurities to direct their path through life. It is easy to sit in judgment of people’s actions when you’re ‘only’ the reader. The wonderful thing about this book is that no matter how questionable some actions and decisions are, by the end of the book, not only did those choices make sense, but they also led to better, healthier choices.

While it is easy to pinpoint Martin as the villain in this story, I think that would be too easy. While I have certainly had my own ups and downs in self-confidence, I can’t imagine making it to the age of forty or fifty without ever being able to just be who I am. Sure, every single act of Martin’s was despicable, but by the end of the book, it was impossible not to wonder if the biggest victim of Martin’s actions wasn’t Martin himself.

While Home Stretch is very much a story about a man coming to terms with who he is and his past before he can find his way to himself, it is also the story about Ireland and generations of people who were forced to flee everything they knew because the community they lived in wasn’t capable of seeing beyond the values they were spoon-fed from the moment they were born and, for far too long, saw as more important than even the people they were supposed to love unconditionally.

Over the decades described in this book, Ireland has come a long way and it would be nice to think that situations like the one young Connor found himself in are now a thing from the past. I fear that the reality isn’t quite as rosy. We’ve come a long way, but I feel we’ve got an equally long way still to go.

My final thought is that it proved impossible to read this book without wondering how much of Connor’s experiences were taken straight from the author’s life. Not the accident, but the feeling that the place where you were born, where your family continues to live, can no longer be your home feels pulled straight from the heart. Which makes me very happy that, eventually, both Connor and Graham Norton found their way back home, even if it was after a long stretch.