At over 400 pages in length, Going Gently is much longer than Mr Nobbs’ usual output and thus does have a certain epic quality, A 99 year-old woman coming to the end of her life at the close of the 20th century is certainly an intriguing proposition. But will Kate make it to her 100th birthday?
As promising as this proposition appears, Mr Nobbs then studiously chooses not to use the novel as a vehicle to chart the changing social landscape of Great Britain as seen through the eyes of this grand old lady. Had he chosen to, then arguably the novel would have gained much in the way of context and perhaps even significance.
Thus the 20th century passes blithely by. Those hoping to find a story which engages with politics and such things will be sorely disappointed. Churchill, Queen Elizabeth, The Beatles… these pages are almost defiantly bereft of even the slightest cultural references. It's difficult not to conclude that the novel takes place in a void, an ahistoric vacuum.
Having suffered a stroke, and now confined to a hospital bed, Kate retreats into that most wonderful of places – the past. With its well-meaning but insipid medical staff and not to mention hyper-flatulent geriatrics, the present is always a grim, lonely place and, one would assume, a smelly, rancid place to boot.
Five-time married Kate proceeds to take the reader on a rather charming trip down memory lane. Passages relating to her close-knit family and their Swansea home are always related with great affection. Nobbs weaves a large tableaux of characters: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, sisters and of course husbands.
Populating a novel with so many characters is no easy task and Nobbs just about manages to keep his plates spinning in the air. Indeed for the first half of the novel he does it rather effortlessly. From bohemian artists to German emigres, Kate’s life revolves around a dazzling array of men.
The device of devoting a single chapter to each one of these men does, however, become a little tired as the novel progresses. The same could be said of the hospital scenes – the here and now – which punctuate the memories. Mr Nobbs’ habit of extracting every last ounce of humour from a joke can become a little irksome; just one word: fart.
As the novel progresses it becomes arguably less successful. A plot revolving around the murder of one of Kate’s many husbands, which develops late in the book, feels frankly superfluous. And the heroine’s propensity to jump from one man to another gives the novel a curiously episodic quality, fine to begin with but somewhat repetitive after 400 and odd pages.
With so many characters on his hands, at times the author does struggle to round off the various strands satisfactorily. Throw in a late-career as a celebrity author for the octogenarian Kate and one can’t help but feel that Going Gently is going nowhere.
Which is a shame. A novel that had started so briskly, like its heroine, rather runs out of steam towards the end. That is not to detract away from some very well realised and poignantly written individual chapters. Going Gently is a novel that reminds the reader that less really can sometimes be more.