In another book review recently I discussed how assumptions with certain authors or book covers can be a dangerous thing. Well one author I thought I would like but wouldn’t take seriously was Julian Clary. That isn’t meant to be offensive, just honest. I think Julian Clary is great, I love his high camp and entendre filled comedy, he always comes across as a really nice chap in interviews but I imagined his fiction might be a little throwaway. Yet when I heard his new novel was about an old house, Noel Coward and ghosts, I knew that I had to read it, and I am so glad that I did because Clary creates a wonderfully funny and at times rather emotional novel.
From the title of Julian Clary’s ‘Briefs Encountered’ you would possibly be inclined to think that here we have a tale of farcical innuendo, not the case. This novel is in fact one of dual narratives, here we have two stories which intertwine with a common link – a house, and a haunted one at that. Sometime around the present day we meet the celebrated English actor Richard Stent who has just bought a house, Goldenhurst, from “annoying camp comic and renowned homosexual” Julian Clary. He plans on making it the perfect retreat for himself and his lover Fran yet the house seems to have other ideas.
The more we learn about the houses history the more we understand why it might have a ‘personality’ of its own and this is where the second strand of the story comes in. Back in the late 1920’s Noel Coward buys Goldenhurst (and it is true that Julian Clary actually bought the house Noel Coward once owned) as the perfect idyllic hideaway for himself and his lover Jack Wilson to escape from the gaze of the world, especially as during this period in history homosexuality was illegal in the UK. However something awful happens one summer and from then on the house becomes a much darker place and this then links back into Richard’s story and what might or might not be going bump in the night.
I liked the double narrative and piecing together what was happening in the 1920’s/30’s and how it was then affecting everything in the present day, I have to say though I would have liked less of the present and more of the past. That sounds like a criticism, and it’s actually not, I was enjoying the story with Noel so much that when we would alternate back to Richard I would race through them to the Noel sections again. I was enjoying the modern tale though it did become a little O.T.T three or four times and I found myself thinking ‘really?’ before quickly reminding myself that ‘this is fiction and sometimes it doesn’t need to be realistic, there are ghosts here for goodness sake Simon just enjoy it’ and so I did.
I think the other reasons that I warmed to Noel’s story so much more was the fact that he and Jack lived and breathed on the page. They seemed more real than Richard and Fran and their friends, and not just because Noel and Jack were real people obviously, it seemed Clary had a real passion and enthusiasm for their story and while he did with Richard and Fran too it was almost eclipsed by Noel presence in his half of the book and the wonderful characters, like his mother Violet and Aunt Vida, who surrounded him. I wanted more of them. I wasn’t quite as interested in Richard and his mad PA and agents (maybe because I work with people like that in my day job) or the celebrities, including Julian Clary himself (I couldn’t decide if it was a genius stroke or not that Clary put himself in the book, I am leaning towards genius), who seemed less real even though I recognized them all.
‘Am I to be relegated to an outside barn like a donkey?’ asked Violet, with a quiver in her voice, clutching a handkerchief to her bosom.
‘No, Darlingest,’ soothed Noel. ‘It’s the granary for one thing, and it won’t be anything like a barn once we’ve finished with it. It will be a terribly modern, roomy abode with hot and cold running water, stunning views across the marsh and a servants’ hall so close they will simply have to reach in and scratch your nose should you get a tiresome itch.’
‘Barns aren’t so bad. Christ was born in a manger,’ said Jack helpfully.
‘And we all know what happened to him’, put in Aunt Vida. She puffed out her ample chest and her weak chin wrinkled as she tightened her lips.
I also wanted more of a story line between Noel and a local policeman, who arrives for a reason I won’t digress, who is suspicious of Noel and Jack’s relationship and clearly wants to cause trouble if he can. The illegality of homosexuality in the UK is a part, or subject, in history we don’t read much about and I thought Clary could have intensified that even more. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned too much about the ‘ghost’ element of the book, which is occasionally rather eerie indeed, and that is because if I do then I might accidentally throw in a spoiler. I will say that it adds a delightful mystery element to the novel on top of all the drama, wonderful characters and the humour (both waspish and innuendo filled) throughout the book.
I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Briefs Encountered’. Yes, it got a little melodramatic here and there but sometimes you just want to escape into a book. I liked both narratives, though I would have liked less modern celebrities (I do wonder if anyone outside the UK would get who all these names are and therefore some of the jokes) and much more of the world that Noel Coward inhabited because when Clary wrote those bits, through his prose and passion, I was thoroughly lost in the 1920’s and 1930’s and didn’t want to leave.