Book review: Three Lives, by Nigel Parsons

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According to amazon, ‘Nigel Parsons was born in an army camp in the South of England and spent many of his early years living in the remnants of the British empire, Malaysia, Singapore, Nepal, and Germany, wherever the army sent his father. The family finally moved to England in his late teens but he found it difficult to settle and after school continued to travel, to Iran, Afghanistan (where he rode a horse across a large part of the country) South East Asia and Australia, where he worked as a miner. He took up journalism and worked for several newspapers and radios before meeting a group of Manouche Gypsies in France while working on the wine harvest at the end of the 1970’s, and stayed with them for several years, learning their language and customs and becoming godfather to several of their children. He later became a well known broadcaster and was the founding Managing Director of Al Jazeera English as well as the founding CEO of TVC Africa based in Lagos. During this time he lost touch with the Manouche, but recently re-connected with them. Twice married, he now lives with a partner, has three children, and lives by the sea in Cornwall in the South West of England, where he swims with seals every day and continues to write.‘

Well, with a profile like that, you’d expect this to be a wide-ranging book and you wouldn’t be disappointed. Thatcher’s Britain, the Falklands, the Rwanda massacre, the drug ayahuasca, the Biafran war, George Floyd, Covid … all these, and more, make an appearance. At 180 or so pages, it’s a small book with big themes. It’s a self-published work, printed by amazon, which came out in October of this year. I reckoned the cover didn’t really do it justice but then again it isn’t offensive either.

The three lives at the centre of the action are Vic (a young man who turns his back on education to work on construction sites and becomes a very successful builder), Hugh (an MP from a fairly well-to-do background) and Miles (a fatherless Cornish boy who goes on to become a journalist). We first meet Hugh and Miles as room-mates at Edinburgh university, where Hugh is studying philosophy. Vic, at this point called Albert, we see as an unhappy pupil with an anarchic bent (stop it) at an old-fashioned boarding school. Their lives collide a few years later when Vic and his slightly bolshy wife save Miles from a street beating. They become friends. Miles introduces them to Hugh … with far-ranging consequences no-one could foresee.

Part state-of-the-nation novel, part prophecy, part warning, Three Lives is also part memoir and part nostagia. As Britain slowly loses its empire, the three protagonists marry, have children, and play their parts in the new emerging order as each gradually realises life is not as they thought it was going to be – and, indeed, not as it should be. Something needs to change … but what? Things gather pace as they each come to terms, in their own separate ways, with a future they can shape, but not necessarily control.

The chapters bucket along and start really snappily. “ ‘Christ, Edinburgh is a shitty city in a shitty country’, muttered Hugh de Sommerville, as he stood by the window … “ or ‘Jennings cursed as his glass eye fell out again and dropped into his partially consumed porridge’.

There’s a fair bit of ‘telling’ of political background from time to time, which is supposedly a no-no in today’s ‘show, don’t tell’ fiction, but personally I enjoyed these bits as I thought they were often a sharp and witty summing-up of how we got where we are.

The author has a terrific gift for dialogue and characterisation, and also the depiction of settings – the descriptions of Miles’ assignments as a foreign correspondent, followed by his subsequent beachside life in Cornwall; Hugh’s Kensington pad and his parents’ family farm in Lincolnshire (which Hugh eventually takes on); Vic’s plush riverside home and Portakabin office – they all ring true. The characters feel real and some of their views would, naturally, not be out of place on GP any day of the week – yet there are other points in the narrative where others disagree, argue, and urge just putting up and seeing where managed decline will lead our country. Somehow, as the momentum builds, you know that will not happen …

A few niggles – there are a couple of typos, a couple of borrowed ideas (for example, a Major Major, à la Catch 22, gets a brief mention and Theodore Dalrymple’s views on political correctness are put into a character’s mouth; there is mention of Heath taking us into the Common Market after a referendum, when in fact the referendum came later) but you know what this is? It’s a good, old-fashioned story – something I feel is really lacking in the mainstream fiction on offer in the shops these days. The narrative arc is very satisfying. With Three Lives, we end, in a sense, where we began … but everything is different.

Slightly surreal at the beginning, when Hugh sees a card in a Curiosity Shop window offering ‘out-of-body experiences’, it quickly turned into something with elements of The Shell Seekers, Freddy Forsyth and V For Vendetta along the way. It really did make me keep wanting to turn the pages, and I would definitely read another novel from Nigel Parsons. There is a freshness to the writing which is very engaging. It’s a fast-paced, original tale which never flagged. Good Christmas stocking material for the non PC … or maybe give a normie a shock 😉


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