It was the 1950s setting that first attracted me to Benjamin Wood’s, The Young Accomplice, an immersive, slow-burning tale of opportunity, idealism and the possibility of breaking free from the past. I’m often a little sceptical when contemporary authors try to recreate this era in their work, especially the dialogue and period detail. Luckily, there are no such problems here. The early 1950s brilliantly are evoked – from the stripped-back, smoke-laded pubs to the grubby underworld of petty crime, everything feels authentic and true. The Young Accomplice was my first book by Benjamin Wood, but it impressed me so much that I’ll definitely be checking out his backlist.
The novel is mostly set at Leventree, a Surrey-based farm where the idealistic architects Arthur and Florence Mayhood hope to develop a new practice along the lines of Frank Lloyd Wright’s collaborative programme at Taliesin. Their aim is to train a series of apprentices – disadvantaged youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds – to participate in their altruistic project. Arthur feels a particular kinship with these ideals, having spent time in a borstal as a teenager for unknowingly handling stolen goods; and with no children of their own, the Mayhoods are keen offer wayward youngsters a fresh start.
Enter Joyce and Charlie Savigear – siblings in their late teens – who win the Mayhoods’ drawing competition for borstal kids with an eye for design.
The Savigears were not the scrawny pair she [Florence] was expecting. Standing half a yard from one another in the fug of their own cigarettes, they had the restful attitude of two navvies on a lunch break. (p. 24)
While Joyce (the elder of the two) is rather sly and outspoken, Charlie is much quieter – a diligent young man who seems eager to learn. He responds well to the expectations set by the Mayhoods, contributing to the farm labour alongside his architectural training. In truth, there is something of the young Arthur in Charlie Savigear, a gentleness combined with curiosity and determination, qualities that Florence detects and hopes to nurture.
But as he [Charlie] stood there by his doorway, thick-browed, restful, waiting for an answer to his invitation, he looked so much like Arthur in his youth that she could feel the strangest dislocation from herself. He had the same involuntary pout, the same relentless motion to his eyes, as though observant of particulars that only he could see. And his carriage: borstal-trained into uprightness, yet so languid and serene. (p. 76)
Right from the start, the novel is imbued with a noticeable sense of unease, a feeling accentuated by the fact that Joyce and Charlie appear to have won their places at Leventree independently and on their own merits, despite hailing from different borstals. While the Mayhoods are too trusting for their own good, Hollis, the seasoned farmhand, soon gets the measure of the two youngsters, Joyce in particular. Hollis swiftly tapes her as crafty operator – smart enough to put on an act in front of her benefactors but quick to slacken off when left unsupervised.
The honest-grafter act was for the Mayhoods’ benefit. But when they weren’t around to watch her, it was whingeing and sarcasm all the way. He knew that it was going to be like this, week after week, one petty incident after the next. It would be her word they favoured over his, whenever there were sulks or quarrels. In their minds, she was still young, a work in progress, someone worth their kindness and investment. (pp. 94–95)
Nevertheless, as the narrative unfolds, a different side to Joyce begins to emerge. Woven through the text are flashbacks to past events as the Savigears’ paths to borstal are carefully revealed. Here we see a sixteen-year-old Joyce being groomed by Mal Duggan, a vicious petty criminal with a line in stolen cars. When Mal offers Joyce an escape from a life of drudgery, serving fussy customers at a dreary Maidstone store, she is quick to jump, lured by the prospect of excitement and a flat to call her own.
They’d met when she was sixteen, on a dreary afternoon in Maidstone, middle of the week. She’d been on lunch break, smoking round the back of E. H. Lacey’s store, and he’d been sitting in a Daimler parked up in the alley, blocking the goods entrance with his bonnet. Her first thought had been: Fancy motor. Must be rich, this fella. She hadn’t given much consideration to the way he looked, all slouched, and rumple-shirted, messing with the dial on the radio. (p. 137)
Naturally, Mal expects payback in return for the girl’s upkeep, forcing Joyce to act as a go-between with his usual fences. It’s a deeply troubling situation, a sexually abusive relationship where Mal holds all the cards.
He’d had her spinning like a pony on a carousel from the beginning, and she hadn’t even heard the music playing. (p. 146)
Charlie, for his sins, also gets embroiled in Mal’s stolen car racket through no fault of his own – a development that ultimately lands both Savigears in borstal.
Back at Leventree, the Savigears’ past begins to catch up with them with the sinister reappearance of Mal, adding to the novel’s underlying air of menace. As Joyce tries desperately to keep Mal’s return a secret – not even Charlie knows that he’s back on the scene – we begin to understand that her bravado is a front. A sort of defence mechanism against the fear of repeating past mistakes. In truth, Joyce is terrified of being sucked back into Mal’s criminal activities, complete with all the attendant risks this presents – not only to herself but to Charlie as well.
As the novel reaches its eventful denouement, we wonder if the Mayhoods’ belief in the Savigears will be rewarded. Charlie clearly has the potential to go far with the right training, but will Joyce’s actions scupper his chances once again? Only time will tell…
Wood has created an excellent novel here, one that hums with a slow-burning tension as the story plays out. The four central characters are brilliantly drawn with a genuine sense of richness, and the architectural practices are also convincingly portrayed. Wood has clearly done his research, covering everything from the preferred cigarettes and toiletries brands of the 1950s to the traditional framing practices of the day. It’s a graceful, slow-burning novel that gradually reveals its hand, rewarding patient readers for their time and investment. Very highly recommended indeed.
The Young Accomplice is published by Penguin Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.
Inevitably, I suppose, I find anachronisms increasingly annoying as I get older, not to mention distracting, so it’s great to hear of a contemporary writer who’s taken care to get things right.
You’d like this one, Susan. It’s so well-written, and the characters are really interesting too. Definitely worth considering if the premise appeals.
High praise indeed, Jacqui – it’s so difficult to get a period novel spot on, and it sounds like this one is really well done. The characterisation sounds strong too, so a win-win situation!
Yes, it’s an unusual premise and the characters feel credible and authentic. A very satisfying read by a talented writer, definitely someone I’ll be keeping in mind for the future.
I had not heard of this one Jacqui, and it sounds as though it may be my sort of read.
Yes, I think you’d like it, Guy. The Mal character is a nasty piece of work, so his presence in the story adds a real sense of menace…
A new name to me. I like the sound of his book The Bellwether Revivals and will look out for it.
He’s got an interesting backlist, so I’ll definitely be checking it out in more detail.
I don’t know this author at all, but this does sound excellent. I really enjoyed that first quote!
It’s very visual, isn’t it? You get an instant image of the how the Savigears come across to others.
Sounds really good. I especially like how Joyce’s character seemed one way but became more nuanced as the story progressed. Getting the details right in a period novel is no small thing. As an American, I had never heard of the word “borstal” and had to look it up. I will definitely be checking out “The Young Accomplice.”
Yes, I really liked this aspect of the characterisation too, especially (as you say) the way Joyce developed through the book. The reader probably makes some assumptions about her upfront, but her situation is more complex than it appears at first sight…
That’s an interesting point about borstal, too – you’re right, it’s a British word from the mid-20th century. I think they were phased out in the late 1970s / early ’80s.
It’s good to hear that the author has done such a good job of recreating the period. It can make such a difference to the feel of a novel when this is done faithfully. Such an interesting premise, too, with fascinating characters.
Yes, the period detail felt spot on, all very credible and authentic. I’m definitely going to take a proper look at this author’s backlist at some point, once I’ve made a dent in my current TBR.
I’ve not heard of this author but it does sound excellent. It’s hard to get period detail right of not make the characters tall and sound like our contemporaries. I started Garmus’ novel Lessons in Chemistry and find it sounds a lot like the author just uses the character as a mouthpiece for things that sound far too contemporary.
Yes, it’s so annoying when that happens. 21st-century sensibilities from a 20th-century character, I’ve encountered that myself (in other books) – luckily, that wasn’t the case here!
A new writer to me. I wonder what attracted him to the 1950s and how ‘historical’ it feels? I recently saw Empire of Light set in 1980/81 and it seemed like ancient history!
I don’t know what attracted Wood to this period, but his portrayal of it definitely felt authentic. I can also imagine how the world of Empire of Light might seem a long time ago, especially as it seems to be channelling a nostalgia vibe, based on the trailer I’ve seen!
Not one I’ve come across at all yet but it looks so well-researched which is a relief to find these days, isn’t it!
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