Will Smith is a TV comedy writer, actor and stand-up. He has won the Time Out Comedy Award for his solo comedy shows and is perhaps now best known for his political satire writing, especially on “The Thick Of It” in the UK and as writer and exectutive producer of “Veep” in the US. Amongst his other awards he has won an Emmy, two Writers Guild Of America awards and has been Golden Globe nominated. This is his first novel. It’s certainly a departure from what he has been noted for. It’s not a comic novel, by any means. The Independent described it as “John Le Carre meets Middlemarch”. I’m wondering whether I have read the same book.
Smith grew up in Jersey and you can certainly tell this as a real sense of the location is one of the most impressive aspects in this debut. True, it may not be that hard to know every inch of an island only approximately nine miles by five but you get the sense that Smith certainly does. Set over an eleven day period in October 1987 this explores the oddness of living on an island where everyone really does know everyone else and the loneliness and sense of dislocation that can entail. As an “overner” living on an island myself (although somewhat larger) I can identify with some of this.
The problem with the novel for me is that Smith’s characters are not particularly likeable and their misfortunes are largely because of their own actions but they are secondary to the character of Jersey itself. It is a place where secrets cannot last, where the need to maintain tourism can threaten common sense and where the beauty of the location (which comes across very well) has to be balanced against a resistance to change, a hostility to mainlanders and where the unpleasant aspect of the 80’s lust for wealth and success is magnified.
There’s considerable potential for reading groups to discuss the role the location has to play in the novel. I must admit I ended up considerably fascinated about life on Jersey with plot and characters not quite as memorable.
Mainlander was published by Fourth Estate in 2015