The year is 1972, the trial of Britain’s very own terrorist group, the Angry Brigade, has begun and in a London squat, an anarchist, Declan O’Connell, has committed suicide. Despite his death, O’Connell is key to the plot of Johnny Come Home – Jake Arnott’s latest fact-led piece of retro fiction .
O’Connell’s boyfriend, Pearson, is shocked at the death and struggles to come to terms with it. Whilst cruising the arcades, he meets a 17-year-old rent boy, who goes under the name Sweet Thing, who then moves into the squat with Pearson and the other resident, Nina, a lesbian political activist, struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. Yes – it’s not a light read.
Sweet Thing meanwhile is the object of desire for rock star Johnny
Chrome – a cash-in glam rock star not a million miles away from one
currently serving time in a Vietnamese prison. The ageing rocker
thrives off the energy trendy teen Sweet Thing gives him, eventually
being kept on a retainer by Johnny’s manager to keep Johnny on the up
(in more ways than one).
And in true Arnott fashion, the plot builds slowly as the the lives of
these characters – and the past life of O’Connell – interact to the
usual slowly unravelling and explosive ending.
Except it’s not very explosive. Unlike previous novels, I found the
ending to this one a disappointment, almost like the plot had run out
of steam. Without wishing to give anything away, you get the feeling
that it all comes to a halt one chapter too soon.
And that’s not the only weakness. Whilst some of the characters are
fairly well-drawn, you do come away from the book feeling that others
(for example Pearson and the police ‘infiltrator’) were underdeveloped.
The other thing the book lacks is a real feel for the era. At the
height of glam and the general unrest of 1972, I would have expected to
have been transported to that very specific time. But apart from a
brief shopping trip to Biba, a late plot twist, the occasional mention
of the Angry Brigade trial and the odd nod to Bowie (Sweet Thing for
example), you get the feeling it could almost be any year in 10.
That’s the negative, now the positive. I read this book in days and it
had me hooked. Arnott’s story writing is exceptional and the way he
integrates the lives of diffferent characters into a steadily building
plot is a skill rarely matched in today’s fiction market. You can pick
holes, but ultimately, the man creates a good read.
Which is why the negatives are so annoying. This could have been a
fantastic book, but the lack of detail and sloppy ending drop it down
to a very good. Still – that’s a lot better than most books cluttering
up the retailers’ shelves.