176 pp., Dog Horn Publishing, £9.99.
In a recent interview, Wes Brown spoke of his commitment to “writing completely uncensored.” His debut novel, Shark, certainly seems to have been written in this way. Its pages are full of sentences that barge their way in to your head, smash the place up a bit and break the door on their way out. Sentences, in other words, that tell it like it is, however that might be. For this reason, Shark will not appeal to everyone. If you are easily offended by swearing, or recoil at the idea of frank sexual discussion, I would advise you to seek alternative literary pursuits; everyone else is invited join John Usher in the run-down boozers and worn out snooker halls of Leeds.
A Yorkshire lad and Iraq war veteran, Usher has returned to his home city following his departure from the army. He struggles to adapt to civilian life and battles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Uninspired by the limited employment opportunities available to him, Usher decides to earn his money as a pool shark. Brown’s novel is the story of the ups and downs of Usher’s life both at and away from the table, including his complex relationship with two women: ex-girlfriend Evelyn, now married to English Defence League member Carl, and attractive barmaid Francesca, whom he has instantly taken a liking to.
The way that Brown writes about Burley, the district of Leeds in which the novel is set, is vivid and engaging. He states that his depiction of Leeds has “elements of the real” but is “located somewhere deep in the subconscious”. Understandably perhaps, he wishes to distance the dystopic elements of his writing from his home city, which, he says, is already at risk of being negatively stereotyped in a way that is “not truly representative”. Nevertheless, he does admit that the novel portrays some of the grittier elements of life that can be found in big cities like Leeds. His writing is undoubtedly at its best when it deals with recognisable aspects of urban Yorkshire: the long roads with “the houses all the same: chunky terraces” and the guttural Leeds accent “doht” for don’t and “yer” for you.
Shark has some weighty themes: the after-effects of war, adultery, misogyny, racism, drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment all feature at some point during the narrative. Brown, however, manages to keep Shark from become an ‘issues’ book. His focus is on his main character, John Usher, rather than on any particular theme. The novel is Usher, his thoughts, his feelings, his actions and his words, none of which are without their controversies.
Usher is a deeply flawed protagonist, who is all the more interesting to read about for this reason. On the one hand we feel sympathetic towards him because of his experience of war, which haunts him like a “quiet scream that doesn’t let slip”. On the other hand, throughout the course of the novel, he is shown to have plenty of personality traits that are difficult to sympathise with, particularly his tendencies towards misogyny and racism.
Although Carl, Usher’s friend, is clearly more vocal and holds the more extreme right-wing views, both men become involved with EDL marches. Futhermore, despite his assertions that the demonstrations are not about race but “abaht country”, Usher often talks about Black and Asian people in offensive terms. The same can be said of the way in which he refers to women, who, in summary, are bad drivers that create too much drama but have bodies that are too appealing to allow one to ignore them completely.
Brown’s choice of protagonist is brave and could easily have backfired. He makes his choice work by giving us a precisely constructed view of Usher’s psyche. Whether we like Usher or not, we do at least understand him and appreciate his complexities. Brown is also careful not to allow us to judge his character too quickly. Usher’s use of racist language is somewhat countered by one particular passage towards the end of the novel, in which he acknowledges that all races are equal in the sense that “we’re all drifters finding our way”. In a similar way, Brown manages to balance Usher’s misogyny with moments of affection and respect towards Francesca and Evelyn.
There is no doubt that Shark is a strong debut novel. It showcases Brown’s distinctive and beautifully economic writing style. Through his exploration of subjects such as the English Defence League, Brown establishes him as a novelist who is unafraid to write about both extremely contemporary and highly controversial topics. Kate Wilson’s comment that "[r]eading Shark is a little like getting punched in the stomach (in a good way)” is very fitting. This is a novel that pins you down and won’t let you go until you’ve reached the back cover. Nevertheless, you won’t want the experience to end.
Lucy Williamson is a recent graduate of the School of English at the University of Leeds. She has had poetry published in the likes of Poetry and Audience and The Scribe and as well as writing reviews for The Cadaverine she also writes book reviews for an online blog Rum and Reviews: http://rumandreviews.