240pp, paperback, £12.99
Reviewed by Siân Miles
The individual development of human maturity seems to be achieved to the accompaniment, unheard by others, of voices – solo, in duet or in chorus: a constant reminder of provenance. They echo the words of the allegedly dead, encouraging, remonstrating, offering advice, questioning decisions; unendingly, sotto voce, often welcome, more often intrusive, yet omnipresent in the heart and mind. In Wendy Brandmark’s extremely funny and accomplished latest novel, this fine writer amply demonstrates her uncommonly acute powers of observation, her sympathy and her mastery of both structure and characterization to play on this important and universal theme.
On the surface, The Stray American is the story of a youngish Boston lawyer, Larry Greenberg, who has left his practice for an experimental period, to teach law at the London-based home of a slightly seedy, second-rate American university. He is clearly at a juncture where he needs to find both a purpose for and a companion on his life’s journey. During his sojourn, dating various English and American women and always keeping spares up his sleeve should these affairs fail to work out , he is persuaded to join a group of fellow-expatriates who meet largely for support in navigating an alien culture but who are in fact themselves equally disoriented and defensive.
It is a mark of the author’s skill and stylish restraint that not until the penultimate page do readers discover what the story is really about and what her protagonist is actually running to and from. The revelation is both moving and richly comical. Brandmark also achieves a fine balance, recording the laudable and the less desirable in US and UK cultural traits.
In The English: Are They Human? George Mikes took the opposite path, reserving his contempt and ire for one side alone. Australian writers are also adept at isolating and lampooning the English use of understatement and obliqueness, as in the Fraffly books which mocked the speech patterns and near-impenetrable accents of London’s seventies’ and eighties’ élite (a maffler swerk of grey choomah for a marvellous work of great humour).
The Stray American pulls no punches, focussing its unflinching gaze and ear on its American characters. Their expectation and uncritical advancement of corruption as the norm in human relations infects all relationships depicted. The only real heroes to emerge are the innocents who eventually triumph over their casual and ineffective oppression.
This is a heartening book, full of insights and laughter. Brandmark’s descriptions of ordinary English life in a seaside resort reflect poetically and politically the nation’s gradual, post-imperial, crumbling disappearance into the sea.