Heroin addiction, alcohol addiction, homelessness and poverty may not seem the ideal topics to make gripping reading but Jon McGregor has done just that in this unusual but carefully planned novel. But McGregor has taken these issues and created characters that feel real and genuine. He glides the reader through a journey that travels to the heart of the sordid, vile and utterly cruel world occupied by heroin addicts – where often the only escape route is death.
Set in Leeds, the story centres on Robert Radcliffe, a former soldier, who fell on hard times after his wife left him. He turned to alcohol and everyday drinks himself senseless. His lifestyle allowed him to ‘collect’ many friends over the years – Danny, Ben, Heather, Steve, Ant and Mike. All of these had serious addition problems. Suddenly, one Christmas-time, Robert is found dead in his squalid flat after having been dead for over a week. Around the same time several of his regular friends die too of drug overdoses but their bodies remain undiscovered in various parts of the city. What follows is a stream of conscious thinking from each of his dead friends containing individual viewpoints and stories, exploring what Robert meant to them, dissecting their own lives in the way the police now dissects Robert’s death and circumstances – followed by his post mortem, the coroners enquiry and finally his bleak and deserted funeral, with each one knowing that a similar fate awaits them when their own bodies are found.
I appreciate that this may seem a gloomy story-line but that’s not the case. It’s beautifully written and captivated my imagination from the outset with its fine prose, character descriptions and dialogue. It’s also a quick read at 195 pages. It’s the type of book that should be on the National Curriculum but I fear schools may veto it owing to the number of expletives used in the text, although these are used appropriately within the context of the story and its characters. But it would be an excellent book at conveying the message of how addictive, destructive and soul destroying heroin is to impressionable youths with a cavalier attitude towards substance experimentation.
© Declan Henry