February 10, 2016
Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page
My first proper job after graduating from university was temping as admin staff for a social services agency in the English Midlands, and it was a job that blew my mind in terms of what it taught me about the possibilities of narrative. My job required me type out reams of notes scrawled on yellow notepads and other paper scraps, and render these into a coherent story, and it was fascinating. I worked in Fostering and Adoption and wrote up family trees and histories for families pursuing these avenues, and then moved into Children and Families and supported social workers with overflowing caseloads working to protect vulnerable children and/from their parents (who were often unfathomably idiotic—or fathomably so; indeed, there was an entire basement room with paper files stacked to the ceiling of cases that stretched back generations).
I had this job concurrent to the Victoria Climbié murder inquiry, which delved into the systematic failure to protect a small girl who had been tortured and murdered by her guardians. The details of this failure are shocking, and yet they weren’t altogether: I’d seen how resources were scarce, how social workers were often impossibly tasked, and wondered too how far the social safety net would have to stretch in order to account for every possibility of unthinkable human evil. “The ends and edges of what [people] could have done or could do,” which is a line from Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, by Kathy Page.
Frankie Styne is a new edition of Page’s novel, first published in 1993, and it put me in mind of my favourite Hilary Mantel novels, her first two, Every Day is Mothers Day and Vacant Possession, dark comedies about the dark edges of humanity and their successful attempts to outmaneuver meddling social workers. Page’s social worker is Annie Purvis, who we know first from the point of view of her client, Liz Meredith, who’s just been moved into a terrace house with her baby. Liz has spent her time most recently living on a railcar after becoming estranged from her family, but since her baby’s birth (compounded by the fact that he has developmental abnormalities) she’s become tangled up in “the system”. Although she diverts all attempts to get her installed with a phone (living as she does by her grandmother’s advice to “Always avoid ties that bind”), she could do with a television, but in the meantime, she contents herself by listening to conversations between the troubled couple next door and imagining a different kind of reality existing on a planet far away, that life itself is merely the plot of a cheap pulp novel she’s somehow been stuck in.
A novel kind of like those penned by Frank Styne who lives next door to her, though they’ve barely met, and she’s never heard of his novels. Styne is a recluse, done in by a facial deformity and a lifelong struggle with sexual dysfunction, but now his latest book has been nominated for a major award and he’s going to have the press on his doorstep. Which drives him to become embroiled in a revenge plot of his own, sadistic fantasies that outdo any possibilities that have turned up so far in his books.
What impact do Frank Styne’s horror novels have upon the world? Is the impact more or less than the effect of Annie Purvis’s attempts to care for clients such as Liz Meredith and her son? Does Liz really require Annie Purvis’s meddling? And Page does such a terrific job of creating sympathy for each of her characters that we’re gunning for Liz, that we understand why she doesn’t take her son to a clinic after his foot is injured—because it’s true that they’d only take him away from her. And we know too that “they” is a group of people around a table, Annie Purvis and her associates, and they’re making their own gambles about the ends and edges of narrative possibility. That Annie Purvis has struggles of her own, a husband who resents the demands of her job. That all these people in close proximity affect each other in ways that no one can predict and that could never be plotted on a graph. That, contrary to Mrs. Thatcher’s assertion, there is such a thing as society after all, but what it is isn’t always pretty.
Frankie Styne and the Silver Man is dark and funny, painful and uplifting, marvellously satirical but never cynical, and thoroughly invested with good faith. Kathy Page is a marvel. This is the very best book that I’ve read in ages, and if I read another half as good in the next few months, that will constitute an extraordinary literary year.