My Policeman – Bethan Roberts

I will be talking about the ‘shoulda, coulda, woulda’ books of 2012, the books you wanted to read and never get round to when you mean to, before the year is through. One book that I definitely didn’t want to have on that list was Bethan Roberts’ third novel ‘My Policeman’ which I have had on and off the pile of books by the bedside since its release in hardback back in February. It was one of those books you occasionally get which you are fairly sure you are going to love and so keep it for a rainy day, you know the ones I mean I am sure. Well it has been raining a lot on the Wirral recently and so I finally decided to pick it up and just in time too, as it will definitely be making its way onto my Books of the Year posts next week.

Vintage Books, hardback, 2012, fiction, 341 pages, kindly sent by the publishers

‘My Policeman’ is the tale of a love triangle set in 1950’s Brighton. Marion, an initially rather young and naive girl, falls head over heels in love with her best friend Sylvia’s brother, Tom, and is determined (in a hopelessly romantic fashion rather than a grim gritted teeth way initially) that one day he will be hers. His teaching her to swim seems the ideal way, which she reminds him he promised her when he returns, to be a policeman, after having been away catering for the army.

As the two become better acquainted after his time away from Brighton, he introduces her to his friend Patrick, who we as the reader know is more than just Tom’s friend and watch as Marion makes the connections that in that time were illegal and seen as perverted. Will she be prepared to share the man with whom she has become obsessively in love with?

The way I have summarised the novel really doesn’t do it justice at all, in fact it makes it sound a bit prescriptive and it is anything but. Bethan Roberts does several things that really make this book stand out, the first is the perspective of the book. This isn’t told by these characters in the prime of their youth when everything was happening, quite the opposite. As Marion narrates her sections of the book, there are five parts of the book in all, she tells it from ‘surburbia-on-sea’ in hindsight as the trio are in their late fifties, sixties and seventies. From the opening of the book we learn that Patrick has recently had two strokes and has, against all odds, ended up living with Marion and Tom at her request. Especially when she says ‘I no longer want to kill you’, which makes you realise this book has a very dark heart at its centre, and as she finds caring for him rather difficult.

“You were particularly trying this morning, refusing to look at the television, even though I’d switched it from This Morning, which we both hate, to a rerun of As Time Goes By on BBC2. Don’t you like Dame Judi Dench? I thought everyone liked Dame Judi. I thought her combination of classical actressiness and cuddly accessibility (that ‘i’ in her name says so much, doesn’t it?) made her irresistible. And then there was the incident with the liquidised cornflakes, the tipping-over of the bowl, which made Tom exhale a hefty tut. I knew you weren’t quite up to sitting at the table for breakfast, even with your special cutlery and all the cushions I’d provided to stabilise you, as Nurse Pamela suggested. I must say I find it difficult to concentrate on what Pamela says, so intrigued am I by the long spikes protruding from her eyelids.”

The book is not just narrated from her point of view. Another master stroke from Roberts is that she also narrates some of the parts from Patrick’s point of view. These are written in the present tense at various points in the past and really highlight just how difficult it was to be homosexual back in the 1950’s. The secrecy which needed to be conducted and the devastation that could be caused simply from someone implying you were ‘comme ca’, as it was then put, are both threateningly real all the time and when they happen described tragically and I have to say Roberts makes these incidents incredibly emotive to read.

“Where to begin? I had a sudden desire to stand up and stride about like a barrister, telling him a truth or two about this life, as he put it. Meaning my life. Meaning the lives of others. Meaning the morally dissolute. The sexually criminal. Meaning those who society has condemned to isolation, fear and self loathing.”

As the two narrations are drawn together not only does Roberts let you know what happened to the trio between their initial meeting and the present, bit by bit making the tension mount as she does so, but your sympathies switch almost constantly with both Marion and Patrick. Are they simply naive, is one of them the bad person, is neither at fault for their actions or are both to blame? I found it very interesting that never do we hear from Tom, who is the catalyst really, yet it didn’t matter that we didn’t either oddly, through Marion and Patrick we picture him and his actions, the good and the bad (Roberts brilliantly gives all her characters strengths and weaknesses making them all the fuller), in full.

I adored ‘My Policeman’, despite the fact it made me cry on a few occasions. I found it incredibly difficult to break away from it for any period of time yet I also found that as the book went on I was trying not to read it too fast, in part from the sense of impending doom and also because I didn’t really want it to end. I felt I was there, a bystander watching it all, feeling for Marion then Patrick and vice versa. It is one of the most beautifully written and emotionally engaging novels I have read this year. It is also a book that highlights a bit of our history that we often brush under the carpet, mainly because we think we are more tolerant now, and yet is one that should definitely be acknowledged and learnt from. It is very hard to believe that Bethan Roberts wasn’t a closeted gay man, or married to one, in the fifties so vividly is it portrayed and so affected are you by the prose. You must read this book.

Has anyone else read this and what did you think? For some reason I thought this was Bethan’s debut novel, it is in fact her third, have any of you read ‘The Pools’ or ‘The Good Plain Cook’? I am most keen to try them.

13 Comments

Filed under Bethan Roberts, Books of 2012, Review, Vintage Books

13 responses to “My Policeman – Bethan Roberts

  1. Patty

    Sounds so good and I can not get it here!

  2. David

    I read it a few months ago, Simon, and I enjoyed it – she definitely gives a good sense of the era and the atmosphere, and I agree that it was hard to put down. I can’t say that it left a huge impression on me, but I did get hold of a copy of ‘The Good Plain Cook’ as a result.

    • Interestingly I have recently got The Good Plain Cook too, from the library. Unlike you this book has sat and sat and sat with me ever since I finished it, I just lived and breathed the book while I was reading it and am still thinking about the characters and what happened next. That doesn’t happen to me to often either. I have also ordered in a reservation of The Pools, I might have a Bethan binge in the New Year.

  3. This book made my best of 2012 list. It made me cry too – got my ‘three hanky award’. There was one point in particular where everyone was so desperately unhappy, each in their own way, that I despaired for them all.

    Bethan happens to come from my town, and she came to talk about the book at our library. She was fascinating to hear talk about (more here). I have copies of her previous two novels, which were also both well received, but haven’t managed to read them yet.

    • Hahaha, I like the idea of a three hanky award, that’s tickled me.

      The book has made it to the very top of my books of 2012 list, that and Diving Belles were neck and neck and then my heart went with this one, just something about it which has really got to me and wedged itself deeply in my consciousness. Loved it. Will be reading more Bethan next year!

  4. Hi Simon – I was given a free copy of My Policeman as part of the Brighton City Reads literary event – I enjoyed it although I felt that not all the characters were sufficiently fleshed out and at the end of the book I was left wanting to know more (the sign of a good book I guess)

    I short-reviewed it on my blog (inspired by yours!) http://0651frombrighton.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/my-policeman-bethan-roberts.html

    • I don’t think Tom is particularly vivid, well physically he is, but I think as he is the catalyst for what happens to his lovers that is fine. I loved being in both their heads and they walked of the page completely for me.

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