There are some writers whose work isn’t easily categorised, who try something new each time, refusing to simply repeat past successes. Alan Warner is undoubtedly one such writer. From his acclaimed and much-loved debut novel Morvern Callar, he has kept readers guessing – not only from novel to novel, but often within the novels themselves.
His latest, Kitchenly 434, is a return to a more unexpected and experimental style, recalling earlier novels These Demented Lands and The Man Who Walks. Like those, it’s more about the writing than the story. It does feature regular Warner tropes, such as left-field musical references, central characters who find it difficult to ‘fit in’, actions which could either be innocent or sinister, unconventional relationships, quirky and memorable characters, and an uncanny attention to detail which places the period precisely – in this case, 1979.
As regular readers would expect, there are passages which are beautifully written, even, or perhaps especially, when not that much happens. The plot, such as it is, is about one man’s attempt to adapt to an ever-changing world as his protected bubble of an existence threatens to pop.
The central character, Crofton Clark, has been looking after Kitchenly Mill Race, a baronial country getaway belonging to Marko Morell, star guitarist in ‘70s rock giants ‘Fear Taker’, since 1973. With Marko and his family regularly on tour or at one of their other homes, Crofton is left to manage the estate, seeing himself as ‘faithful retainer’ rather than simply the steward.
Crofton is a man out of time, leading a sheltered life as the often bleak Britain of the 1970s moves through its cultural, social, and political changes. When the brave new world arrives at the gates of Kitchenly Mill, his reaction is that of a child looking to fit in with new friends and once again belong. It’s very funny, excruciating at times and verging on the slapstick at others. If you are honest, you may recognise something of yourself in Crofton Clark, and you may not like it. Kitchenly 434 is a novel that never allows you to settle; which makes sense, because with Alan Warner, you should always expect the unexpected.