The first thing one does after finishing Holding is breathe a sigh of relief. When a well-known personality branches into fiction there is always the fear that they will not be very good; that maybe they have been given a book deal because of their celebrity and social media following. This is most definitely not the case with Graham Norton’s debut novel Holding; a well written enjoyable novel that deserves to take pride of place on any bookshelf.
Holding is set in the small Irish village of Duneen, County Cork. The village’s only Garda (police) presence is that of Sergeant PJ Collins. Overweight and underemployed nothing interesting ever seems to happen in Duneen. That is until human remains are found on and old farm. As the investigation gets going, secrets that have long laid buried come to the surface. All is not as it seems. Resentment, anger and frustration have been bubbling beneath the surface and as each revelation comes to light the image of a picture-perfect community is punctured a little more. Collins is more used to dealing with paperwork and acting as a traffic controller at local fetes. When he is called into action can he step up to the plate and be the Gardai he always hoped he would be?
Alongside Collins is equally frustrated Brid Riordan. Drowning her disappointment in wine she is far from the naïve in love young woman of twenty-five years ago. The still beautiful and fragile Evelyn Ross is equally as trapped, keeping house for her two older sisters who have been growing old together. Brid and Evelyn had once been love rivals but now they couldn’t be more different. The focus of their affection was a young Tommy Burke. The tall silent type he courted Brid, hoping to take procession of her farm when they married. At the same time, he also allowed Brid to develop feelings for him. She was inexperienced in love and has lived a largely unfulfilled life. When Tommy mysteriously disappeared both women’s lives were changed irrevocably. Holding takes us to the centre of the love triangle that had such a profound impact on their lives.
The highlight of the novel is the way in which Norton has drawn his three main characters. There is a kindness is their depiction and it is easy to find oneself rooting for them; hoping that they will break out of their bonds and fully realise their hopes and potential. Collins is not the most obvious character to choose to lead a novel but Holding is the richer for him. He is a man who has settled into an easy life, avoiding all risk of romantic failure and hurt. Similarly, Brid is a fully rounded and not always likeable character who is far more than her drinking habit. In contrast Evelyn is someone who has lived almost in stasis. What for most people would have been an unsuccessful childish romance was compounded by the deaths of her parents. She has lived in a state of almost paralysis for the past twenty-five years. Her character arc was particularly well done and enjoyable to follow. There is a tinge of sadness to her life. Will this be lifted by the end of Holding?
The action is largely enclosed within Duneen, a place that rarely has internet access let alone dramatic and surprising murder mysteries. There are a few moments where the characters motivations and emotional turns seem a little unconvincing and Holding is not what one would expect from a traditional crime thriller. However, the character development is the backbone of the novel. Norton has a knack for drawing sympathetic characters. In this well paced novel each character finds themselves nearing middle age wondering what they have achieved so far and whether they are holding onto to the past rather than stepping into the unknown. Loneliness and uncertainty are always hovering at the edges. The novel is sweet and understated.
An otherwise positive Guardian review argues that “surprisingly … he steers clear of rendering Irish speech beyond a few “sures” and “lads””. This is something I was very grateful for. From living in Ireland, I have found that many writers tend to over exaggerate Irish vernacular and slang, giving the impression that they have never set foot into rural Ireland. Fortunately, Norton largely avoids stereotyping village life.
As the novel came to its close I thought I knew what would happen. Soon though I found myself sat bolt upright surprised at the turn of events. It would have been so easy to create a simple, twee happy ever after with little truth or life in it. However here we have something much more interesting. Holding is a charming debut from beginning to end.
Graham Norton. Holding. Hodder & Stoughton. London. 2017. 9781444792034. Paperback. Pp312.