Book review – The Pools by Bethan Roberts

The Pools coverReviewed by Ben Macnair.

The Pools examines the aftermath of the death of a 15-year-old boy, Robert, and the repercussions the event has on people involved with the boy’s life.

The novel is set in a small town in middle England, in the mid-1980s, where nothing seems to happen. The teenagers endure terminal boredom, and when not at school talk about nothing in particular.

The characters of the parents are distinctly well drawn, and Bethan’s handling of the courtship of Robert’s parents, Kathryn and Howard, reveals the foundation to their lives together.

Howard works at the local power station, while Kathryn is a librarian, and their quiet domestic existence of work, home, and the garden, which is Howard’s pride and joy, is bought into sharp relief by the arrival of their son Robert.

The book follows the unfolding lives of the three, and opens up to includes Joanna, who another viewpoint on the tragedy the story is building up to. She is a friend of Robert, and provides us with an insight into Simon’s school-days, and inclinations. Joanna’s domestic situation is in total contrast to Robert’s. Her parents have split up, she rarely sees her father, and she does not much care for her mother’s new partner, Simon.

The emerging sexuality of Robert is a topic that Howard, in his somewhat repressed way, is uncomfortable in dealing with, which puts a distance between father and son. The closeness of their early relationship, Howard’s recollection of the first bike he bought for his son, with its Minnie Mouse bell, and memories of a day they spent together at the Tank Museum, bonding over the weapons of war, is shown in direct contrast to their later distant relationship, and the distinct lack of understanding between the two towards the end of the book.

The tragic and early death of Robert, is sign-posted from the prologue of the book, which shows Kathryn unable and unwilling to move, whilst Robert prepares her for their son’s funeral.

At nearly three hundred pages, the book is not a short read, but the fact that the novel is chopped into small chapters, with each chapter narrated by either Joanna, or Howard, helps to push the narrative thrust of the book along.

There are no unnecessary moments within the book as a whole, although the awkwardness of teenage life, and parents struggling with the changes that those teenage years brings is very well drawn through the whole of the book.

Howard cannot understand the leanings that his son is developing, while Kathryn feels it is important to encourage the artistic talents of their son, which leads to him changing schools and meeting Joanna. The dichotomy of Howard’s way of wanting to bring up Robert, and his wife’s more bohemian way shows the times that the two were bought up. They were both children of the 1960s, but with different outlooks and character imprints from that time.

In addition to the novel itself, the book includes a revealing story about how the book came to be written, and this helps to explain some of the choices in the authorial voices within the story. Inspiringly, Bethan also reveals her struggles as a writer, which is reassuring news for anyone sitting at a computer, hammering out words, hoping that one day they may make sense to someone else.

The Pools by Bethan Roberts is published by Serpent’s Tail and available to buy from Amazon.

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