x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

The Old Romantic: a funny sort of ending

Never maudlin, just incredibly moving. Crucially, it's also very funny. Dean's books have always had a caustic, darkly humorous side to them.

London bus idles on Regent Street. Across the road sits a row of red telephone boxes, and dominating the scene is the aerial atop the Art Deco Broadcasting House - the home of the nascent BBC. A picture-postcard English scene, which I almost suspect the novelist Louise Dean, away from her home country for 13 years and utterly delighted to be home, chose deliberately. That's until we sit down for lunch… at a Turkish restaurant.

Still, Dean is clearly in her element on a beautiful English late summer's day. Her previous books have been set in the Caribbean, Northern Ireland, France and Africa, which mirrors in some way her own life; as an advertising executive she married a Texan and moved to New York. When the marriage failed, Dean left America for France, where she lived in Provence. But it's taken moving back home for the prize-winning, Booker-longlisted author of three previous books to write The Old Romantic, her first book set in contemporary England.

And if the title sounds as though it might be a rose-tinted meditation on the land of her birth, nothing could be further from the truth. "I know," she laughs. "I was very conscious that it might be a love song to England. Coming home was a truly beautiful thing. But each book, for me, starts with a theme. And this one was about death." 

So in The Old Romantic, Ken is approaching his 80th birthday and obsessed with his own mortality. He is determined to end his days with his family around him. The problem is that they are not so keen: a huge feud between Ken and his son Nick means they haven't met for years. When they do, the stroppy, proudly working class Ken behaves appallingly, unable to forgive his Cambridge-educated solicitor son for betraying his roots.

The reasons for the resentment become clear through some clever, if convoluted, plot lines, but Dean's real success here is to combine a story of class division with ideas about the generation gap and ageing. "Ken feels like a man whom the present time has left behind," she explains. "A lot of older people feel like that I think, that the world doesn't want them any more. 

"Like most people, I have a fear of death," she continues. "I really wanted to explore it to the point where it made me feel really uncomfortable. But equally, I'd just come back to England after 13 years away, so I couldn't help wrapping it up with a great sentimental feeling for England and finding my family again."

The Old Romantic is never maudlin, just incredibly moving. Crucially, it's also very funny. Dean's books have always had a caustic, darkly humorous side to them, but her latest is, she admits, more of a straight comedy. Perhaps that might have something to do with the experience of her last book: The Idea of Love was about mental illness and estrangement and was, she says with some anguish, "gruelling to write".

"It was about mental illness, being an immigrant and estrangement - and it was too draining. It was ultimately nihilistic and I don't mind admitting I struggled with it. I must have written a million words, so I wanted after that to laugh again, and coming back to England was the biggest relief, I can tell you. It felt like tearing off a straitjacket and running along a beach or something. I could be myself again. I could be at ease."

Dean worries that people might not "get" why a literary novelist is writing a comedy - perhaps mindful of the mixed reviews Ian McEwan has received for Solar this year. But where McEwan's humour is wry and forced, Dean teases out the comic potential in everyday scenes - particularly when Ken is horrified by an embalming at the local funeral parlour. She is an obsessive researcher (for her novel This Human Season, set in 1979 in the lead-up to the Maze prison hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, she amassed more than 250 hours of interviews) so she did indeed ask to see an embalming. In fact, Dean reckons that she could do one herself now. "It's not actually that complicated," she nods, a twinkle in her eye.

"I think it helped me get around the idea of death," she says, "and Ken does reflect in the funeral home on how short life is. I've just turned 40, and you do have to come to some sort of accommodation with yourself about where you come from, who you are in your family. You have to sift through your life and work out what's important and what's not, and perhaps this book is my way of doing that." 

Certainly that's also the journey for most of the characters in The Old Romantic. Ken, without ever vocalising it, realises that he has abused the power he had over the people in his life. Nick's girlfriend Astrid finally gives up chasing beauty in place of something more realistic, while Nick reveals the sense of shame he has about so obviously reinventing himself. And interestingly, as more about these characters is revealed, our relationship with them changes - and not always for the better.

"I'm intrigued by people who are not nice, aren't you?" says Dean. Still, filling a book with unsympathetic characters is quite a gamble. "Well, as a writer I find when you work with difficult characters you can actually get to a sweet spot in a novel, a tenderness. It becomes much more moving and affecting that way, and I suspect that's because you just expect nice things to happen to nice people. But come on, none of us are either nice or bad. I certainly remember when I was younger that moment I realised that people were complicated mixtures of both. I'm still fascinated by that - very rarely do I work with a character who is straight-up heroic."

The Old Romantic is similarly complicated - funny but sad, angry yet touching. As another red bus passes, I'm reminded that she even makes the England she purports to love sound appalling. Hastings, the Sussex town where the book is set, is a place where "gormless men congregate with their shaven heads, a knife in one of their socks, faces pitted like oranges". "Hastings was where I started, my point of origin," she explains. "In a way it couldn't have been better. It was like having another character to deal with, because it was so on its uppers, having such a hard time. The people there - without being too uncharitable - are probably at the end of their chances. So the romantic part of the book was tied up in that: is it possible in life to have another chance?"

Which, in a way, sums up Dean's own journey in life, and the story of this book. So, I ask her, is it possible? "Seeing as every novelist is a romantic," she smiles, "the answer is yes."