- Home Stretch, by Graham Norton. Coronet. $32.99.
Graham Norton is one of the highest-paid people on the BBC payroll and receives even more from his own company which produces The Graham Norton Show. So why, you wonder, go to the trouble of writing novels? To suggest that it was just a way of cashing in on his popularity - an impression reinforced by the publishers who give his name more prominence than the book's title - would be unfair, because the evidence from this book is that he is a fine writer and an excellent storyteller.
It is the storytelling that is most striking. This is an old-fashioned page-turner, a set of events in a small country town and the way that they affect his characters in their future lives.
Six young men and women are in a car crash that takes the lives of three of them and leaves another in a wheelchair. It is small-town Ireland in 1987, specifically West Cork, beautiful but slow-moving, where Norton himself grew up.
Connor Hayes, the youngest of those in the car, is the driver. A non-drinker, he is without fault for the accident, but has to leave town because he is unable to face the families of those who have lost their lives. He moves first to Liverpool, then London, before ending up in New York with his wealthy partner Tim. His sister Ellen is courted by the other survivor of the crash, Martin Coulter, a medical student in his final year. They marry and have two children, but the marriage is not a happy one. The narrative moves from West Cork to New York as we follow the troubles of Connor and Ellen, each on a slow path to recovery.
The story is moving along carefully, threatening to descend into a kind of redemptive lit, when we learn a small detail about the accident. Suddenly, we have a different story altogether and the reader is once again grabbed by the slow unfolding of events. It is almost like two stories, the change introduced not as a result of some deep analysis or zealous detective work but from a casual remark that changed the entire meaning of what had happened.
At an online pre-launch discussion, Norton described this as his "most personal story to date", and the reader will be aware that the accounts of the gay scene in London and New York come from someone familiar with that world. What may surprise is that it is not all that different from the kind of world in which young people find themselves, irrespective of sexual inclination. Connor is not the only gay character in the story, but has more problems than the younger ones; this is shown in particular in the final scene in the book which involves the wedding of two gay men, attended by local townspeople.
As a story of small-town redemption, this is credible. Norton's best book yet.