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The Late Review: Debris

18th Aug, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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You wait for a new short story by Andrew Humphrey, and you wait, and you wait, and then along comes not only a whole collection of short stories but a novel as well. Along with A Punch to the Heart, which I reviewed on Monday, in April 2022 Head Shot Press released Andrew Humphrey's second novel Debris (and I'm sure nobody needs to be reminded that TTA Press published his first, Alison, back in 2008).

I've made several attempts at a plot synopsis for Debris, but it seems I can't do it without giving too much away and/or getting in a horribly tangled mess that brought to mind the line from old comedy series Soap - 'Confused? You won't be, after this week's episode of... Soap.' Which is not to suggest that Humphrey's book is either muddled or satire/comedy. It's none of those things, but it is a tightly constructed work of fiction. In the briefest of terms then, at heart it's a novel about two brothers; Nick, who is the viewpoint character, and overbearing older brother Patrick; and it's also about the two sisters with whom they become romantically involved, Hannah and Jessica. There's infidelity and criminal acts, addiction and financial problems, abuse and dark, family secrets, moments of lightness and humour - in fact, all the stuff you'd expect from a soap opera, but pitched with a noir sensitivity, insightful characterisation, sparkling dialogue, and a razor sharp prose style.

Central to the story of the two pairs of siblings are the character flaws that either undo them or make them stronger. For Patrick it is his bullying nature, the expectation that everything will work out for him no matter what, and it is this assurance that sees him lose everything, both his job and his wife, his house and his health. And yet Humphrey doesn't paint him entirely black. He is kind to neighbour Ivy, and there is an element of truth to his claim to be protecting the weaker Nick. Nick is in some ways a character who simply reacts to events, certainly in his romantic liaisons; Hannah, Jessica, and Tash all practically seduce him, with Nick going along with their plans as if he has no will of his own. Similarly his past life, both with his family and in employment, was simply a case of taking the path of least resistance. Gambling is at the heart of his problems, and as he gets control of this then he finds agency. He is able to confront the problems in his life, much of which are down to the family secrets that have been kept from him (the brothers' mother is a spiteful old bag with much to answer for), and if he has lost so much then at least by the end of the book he is in a position to start again and make a new life for himself, one with solid foundations. The relationship between Hannah and Jessica is more ambiguous, with each of them telling stories that reflect poorly on the mental fibre of the other. Hannah seems the more manipulative of the two, to the point that at one stage I felt certain she was pulling Nick's strings to get out from under the influence of Patrick. Jessica seems like the freer spirit and there is hope at the end that she will give Nick another chance, though not prepared to take any of his bullshit. Larkin's aphorism about parents fucking you up is quoted by Jessica at one point, and it seems apposite to both pairs of siblings.

Overall Debris is a fast paced and engrossing read, with characters I was interested in and cared about, perhaps because of rather than in spite of their feet of clay.





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