Having read the first chapter and seen the cover last year, I had formed the idea that Abide with Me would revolve around football. The good news for non-footy fans is that isn’t really the case. For those who do like the beautiful game, these episodes add extra spice to the backdrop. This novel opens with the Sissons family watching West Ham win the FA Cup Final in ’75. Five years later, the Hammers win the cup again, but ironically, the dream soon turns sour in the most unexpected of ways.
AWM can be broken into three approximate parts: the childhood experiences of neighbours and classmates, John and Kenny; John’s teenage years and subsequent descent into the world of crime; before the lads meet up again in a thrilling finale. It’s not a novel for the faint hearted. AWM is about as far from a rose-tinted view of upbringing as you can get in spite of the cultural references. A number of harrowing domestic incidents bring to mind some of the earlier work of fellow East Londoner Gary Oldman, such as Meantime or the very hardhitting Nil by Mouth. Indeed, Ayris’ work has a certain cinematic quality to it and I would not be surprised if this novel ends up being made into a film.
There are times when you think life can’t get worse for the main characters and then it does. But there’s a welcome dry, dark humour throughout. Ayris is always able to put his tongue firmly in cheek. Not many writers would come up with a gangster called Ronnie Swordfish (because he was a Pisces).
All in all, AWM has a fine balance of drama, suspense and poignancy, which is far from easy to achieve. This novel is to be admired because it dares to be different, instead of following a more established genre fiction blueprint. It is much more than a crime story, reminding me of some books that got me into reading fiction in the first place as a teenager. Books about growing up, in which the social surroundings were significant, breeding grounds for trouble, where you could see how such questionable lifestyles evolved, without necessarily having to condone or condemn them.
Hats and scarves off to Ian Ayris, who will be forever blowing bubbles if he carries on in this vein.
Ian will be doing a series of signings and readings in and around London, beginning in Waterstones in Romford on March 24.