Whilst he might not be a Dickens or a Tolstoy, with Mr Nobbs you do at least know exactly what you are going to get: terrible puns, hardly any description whatsoever (spot the simile/metaphor), tons of relatives/minor characters called Dave or Steve, divorces, break-ups and lots and lots of references to somebody or other’s ‘prick.’
Based on this assessment you might think I don’t care too much for the creator of TV legend Reginald Perrin, but you’d be wrong.
Nobbs’ 2010 novel Obstacles to Young Love is….pure Nobbs. It’s essentially a tale of a couple of star cross’d young lovers who eventually overcome said obstacles to finally get it together.
Before very religious Timothy and very secular Naomi can come together first they must go through several unsatisfactory marriages, careers in taxidermy and TV, Pennine ‘piss-ups’ and the a whole host of instantly forgettable minor characters such as gay brothers living in Paris and a whole litany of new spouses of ex-partners.
After a while, it all gets a little too much, all the names, who’s married to whom etc. It’s not unusual for me when reading Nobbs to find myself checking back on previous pages/chapters just to remind myself who is actually who.
There’s even a weird diversion to the jungles of Peru where we are introduced to a lonely German tour guide whom Mr Nobbs doesn’t seem to like that much. With Nobbs you always know if he likes a character or not. Let's just say subtle is not part of his vocabulary.
As with several other of his books, Obstacles to Young Love is a curiously colourless book. You’ll hardly ever find a single descriptive passage in the entire novel. Thus, apart from a hero (Timothy) who is handsome and a heroine (Naomi) who is pretty, we never really get much beyond the cursory with this writer.
If it’s evocative writing that floats your boat I’d stay well away from Nobbs. My own theory is that he just can’t write descriptive fiction. What he can do however is always describe what his characters are eating. Food always plays a prominent role in his fiction.
Fairly typical of the book’s meandering narrative are the ‘Pennine piss-ups.’ Putting aside the rather less than subtle coinage, these ‘piss-ups’ entail Timothy and friends embarking on drinking pilgrimages around certain Yorkshire watering holes with pals Tommo and Dave…
Meanwhile another friend ‘Sniffy’ is ostracised from these yearly ‘piss-ups.’ But the sting in the tail occurs when ‘Sniffy’ turns out to be a real friend. Cue diversion upon diversion.
And so it goes on. And on.
Throwing in a suicide (Tommo) towards the end feels like the act of a desperate novelist. Nothing like a death to inject a bit of drama into a novel, but as the character is on the peripheral of this story the impact, far from resonating, rather falls flat. In order to have impact a reader has to care. And we don’t.
To be honest Obstacles to Young Love feels like the endeavour of a novelist reworking tried and trusted formulas. At the end of the day it’s…well it’s David Nobbs.
Having said all that there is something reassuringly naff about this writer; think favourite uncle - a bit grumbly, but for all his faults still lovable. And just occasionally he'll produce something excellent like Cupid's Dart. Only not this time.