Having read Jonathan Smith’s Summer in February, his captivating tale of love and loss in the Lamorna artistic community, early this year, I was keen to explore more of his novels.
Not that I need to assemble another Billy bookshelf to accommodate his back catalogue. Noted primarily for his two works of non-fiction, including the much acclaimed Learning Games, his book based on his experiences as a teacher, Smith’s six novels are harder to find than a sensible Michael Gove idea. I even had to break my Amazon boycott to buy Night Windows, Smith’s 2005 novel.
Google may bury Smith somewhere past a footballer, actor, a psychologist and a games programmer, but as an English teacher at top boys’ public school Tonbridge he’s played a part in the careers of the likes of Vikram Seth and Downton Abbey’s very own Dan Stevens (who is returning the favour by starring in the big screen adaptation of his former teacher’s brilliant Summer in February later this year).
Night Windows brings two of Smith’s experiences together; teaching and identity theft of which Smith was a victim for several years. He explains on the dust jacket that this inspired him to write this novel about a high-flying head whose world (almost) comes crashing down around his ears after he’s arrested and accused of some rather unsavoury crimes. He then sets out on a mission, with the reader looking over his shoulder, to prove his innocence.
If Jonathan Smith is the Robin Williams of Kent, his hero in Night Windows, Patrick Balfour is a more polished version, fewer motivational Walt Whitman poems, more stirring speeches about Churchill. Balfour is the head of a top public school (a thinly veiled, location-wise anyway, City of London Freeman’s). He’s also a bit of a media personality and all-round charmer (if this is ever made into a film or TV series then Nigel Havers would be a shoe-in for the role).
Night Windows is an engaging and thought-provoking read. Stuffed full of clues, Smith, and his fictional criminal mastermind, lay a trail of literary breadcrumbs, encouraging us to head off in one direction only to discover it’s a dead end, forcing us to back out of our mental cul-de-sac and begin again.
Cleverly Smith never allows us to be 100% certain of Balfour’s innocence and our doubts as to who the real Patrick Balfour is are mirrored by the character himself. Balfour may not be literature’s most sympathetic character, but he is a real literary treat in that he felt human rather than a mirage of adjectives and silted dialogue. His very humanness makes him a divisive character; my flatmate, who read the book before me, described him as “not a very likeable man”, but I thought he was just a man of a certain age at the top of his career equipped with all the confidence (arrogance?) and sense of entitlement that those two things carries. Sure, he’s flawed, but he at least knows he is.
The novel, didn’t, as I feared, disappear through a massive plot hole as it cantered towards the end. The finale is satisfyingly realistic even if the last couple of chapters with all their big reveals and drama felt a little frantic.
Along there the way there were a few obvious absences. How did a man with as many enemies as Balfour have, with a big a media presence, manage to keep the secret of his arrest to himself bar those he chose to tell? If the media discovered and thought news-worthy his affair, surely his arrest would all over the front pages, of the Evening Standard at least. And I found it odd that everyone Balfour confined in believed he was innocent unquestioningly, even those who had claims to dislike and disbelief him.
But, like human beings and fictional characters, books are always so much more likeable if they’re not completely perfect.
by Suzanne Elliott