No, not THAT Will Smith. This is the writer, comedian and sometimes star of The Thick of It Will Smith, and this is his first novel.
What did I expect knowing all this? Not a lot. His is one of those faces that I recognise, but would never really be able to place. Perhaps a comedic book, but not necessarily.
So, I opened Mainlander with no real hint of what was to come, except I knew it was about a man not native to Jersey, living on Jersey.
The plot, if you can accuse it of being a plot begins with our main character Colin out on a walk to escape an argument with his wife when he spots one of his pupils on a precipice. Colin climbs down and speaks to him, then gives him a lift home.
Only later, does Colin consider that the boy may have been about to commit suicide.
Colin begins to investigate when the boy disappears, but at the same time must contend with a dependent neighbour, a crumbling marriage and a career on the brink of ruin.
I spent much of the book wondering two things – why specifically was the book set on Jersey, and why specifically was it set in 1987?
In hindsight the answer to the first question is obvious, the island, in the English Channel belonging neither to England or France, but historically attached to both of them, is representative of the characters themselves. All of them standing alone in the conflict that surrounds them.
This is particularly noted when the island’s history during the Second World War is touched upon.
As for why it was set in 1987, the only answer I can seem to suggest is that it is for one of the characters – Colin’s neighbour – to still be around, but have been an adult during the war.
The ‘denouement’ to the plot also makes particular use of the geography of the island and the descriptions of it are quite vivid, making the reader feel they’ve visited the island*.
*Note: I say that without ever having been to the island. It may be that the descriptions were shit.
My point, however, is that both the timeframe and location for much of the book are distracting and add nothing specific to the plot. Take them away and the plot that you are left with is… weak.
Indeed, one of the subplots doesn’t actually cross over with the main plot at all, and could quite easily be removed from the book altogether. It’s almost like someone felt the book wasn’t quite thick enough, and needed to add some more material.
The storm that makes up the climax of the book, finally leaves all of the characters in a more interesting place and then abruptly the book ends.
I was harsh at the beginning of this review about the plot, but only because there is a wonderful beginning and middle to the story, but no ending. The characters are well drawn and intriguing, but we seemed to spend most of the book getting to know them and then just as it’s about to get interesting we’re asked to leave the party.
This could have been so much more, but as it is, it’s three hundred pages of a nice prose that says:
“No man is an island, huh? Well, actually, they kinda are.”