“He Wants” by Alison Moore

Whatever I wanted, it wasn’t this clumsily constructed, overly contrived but largely empty story.

Judging from the critical acclaim this novel received, I’m in the minority in seeing this particular emperor as naked.

“He Wants” was The Observer Book of the Year in 2014, which asserted, ‘Moore movingly mines the aching gap between aspiration and actuality.’ The Guardian called it “brave and rigorous’. The Financial Times declared, ‘Moore is a serious talent. There’s art here. There’s care.’

My experience of “He Wants” was very different. I read a book that was reaching for profundity wrapped in a fable but only achieved monotony, wrapped in astute and sometime funny observations on what it feels like to grow old.

I’m in my sixties and I smiled at how well Moore captured the small assaults of old age on wellbeing. The prose was sparse but evocative, especially when summoning childhood memories. The opening was intriguing and promised much but the middle and the end delivered very little.

The framework of the story kept trying to link the action (such as it was) to a wider exploration of what we want and what we don’t want and what we do about the gap between what we want and what we have but it was done in a very heavy-handed, sometimes clumsy way, that distracted from the story.

My main stumbling point was that I neither belived in nor cared about either of the two main characters.

Lewis Sullivan, widower and retired Secondary School RE teacher is, in his sixties, a boy-man afraid of the world and so passive and cautious that he’s one step away from being put into care. Yet he doesn’t come across as tragic or even interesting, just irredeemably dull and timid. Sydney, Lewis’ anarchic childhood friend / teenboy crush, who, after disappearing for decades, returns from prison just in time to move the story towards its denouement, is at best and archetype and at worst a caricature.

The plot relies heavily upon co-incidence but doesn’t use the co-incidences to go anywhere except around in circles of ever-diminishing meaning.

He Wants” had me starting by wanting it to be as intriguing as it seemed to be, moved me swiftly on to wanting it to be less empty than it seemed to be and ended with me just wanting it to be over.

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