By John Lucas

Greenwich Exchange. 265 pages. £9.99. ISBN 978-1-910996-06-5 (paperback)

Reviewed by Jim Burns

The scene is “a lacklustre pub on a wet Wednesday night in late January.” A small jazz group has been playing for a sparse audience when the saxophonist spots a woman who has slipped into the room and taken a seat “as far away from the low stage as she could get.” He thinks he recognises her, but isn’t sure until the music ends and she stands up to leave.

The woman’s appearance disconcerts Geoff, the saxophonist, and triggers memories of his earlier relationship with Helen. He invites her to have a drink, and as she passes near him, “that scent she used, its dark, musky aroma, long forgotten, so instantly familiar, assailed him.” The reader knows from the nature of their encounter that they have a shared past, and that, as Geoff’s uneasiness seems to suggest, it might not have been a happy one. Or, at least, it perhaps concluded on an unhappy note. But why has she now re-entered his life? It can’t just be coincidence.

It turns out that they had been involved in a relationship ten or so years before, and that it came to a sudden end when Helen rather mysteriously left town and moved elsewhere. Geoff never had really known what happened and why, But he’s still infatuated with her, despite some other passing romantic encounters in the intervening years. And Helen, a teacher, likewise has a story that, bit by bit, she tells Geoff as their renewed acquaintanceship slowly and edgily develops.

It’s not all sweetness and light, and Geoff’s wariness about being emotionally vulnerable once more, and his natural reticence, together with Helen’s seeming reluctance to get involved with him again, ensure there are a few tricky passages to negotiate before there’s a satisfactory conclusion. Or is there? Geoff is clearly not the most organised of people, and though Helen appears to be opening up to him by the end of the novel, I had an uneasy feeling that things could still somehow go wrong. But maybe I’m just an old doubter who finds seemingly happy endings hard to believe in. They may well get together for a time, but is it likely to last? It’s perhaps a sign of how John Lucas has successfully established believable characters that I could easily think about them in those terms. 

The Plotting is set in the Midlands, and Lucas authentically creates the atmosphere and tensions of a city big enough to support a sort of mini-bohemia of musicians and artists and writers, but small enough for them to often know each other’s business. Geoff is a semi-professional saxophone player, and is employed as a librarian, which gives Lucas an opportunity to comment on cutbacks and interfering local busybodies. The other members of the group are similarly part-time in their musical activities. One is a retired policeman, another an undertaker (I think they like to be called morticians now), and the third a somewhat slick operator, both as a pianist and as a person, who gets involved in shady business deals and eventually commits suicide in slightly suspicious circumstances. Throw in a sleazy solicitor, an elderly working-class, trade unionist autodidact, and several other entertaining characters, and The Plotting is a convincing account of provincial life.

I have to say, too, that Geoff’s activities as a musician and librarian give Lucas the opportunity to use his knowledge and experiences as a poet, academic, and musician to good advantage. He knows how to fill in those little details – a tune title, lines from a poem, the way musicians relate on and off the stand, a literary reference, a specific location – that give a story credibility. I had a great deal of pleasure reading The Plotting.