By Simon Demetriou
Towards the end of Grounds-keeping, Alma, the Ivy League educated writer in residence of Ashby College in Kentucky, criticises the writing of Owen, the novel’s protagonist and narrator. Her problem with Owen’s draft is that while the writing itself is good, the content is too close to home. Effectively, he has written an ego-centric slant on the events surrounding his arrival at Ashby as a groundskeeper and aspiring writer, including the developing romantic relationship between himself and Alma.
My problem with Lee Cole’s debut novel runs along similar lines. Much of the writing is excellent; this is a writer who can craft character and visual description with precision and resonance. But the book itself tries far too hard to draw attention to itself as a book about writing a book. The story is narrated by a character who is constantly working on turning the events of the novel into a novel being written within the book itself. So, Owen and Alma become characters in the novel and characters in the novel within the novel; events become events in the novel and events in the novel within the novel. You get the picture.
So what’s the problem? When a book wants to pull off a meta-narrative of this extent, to do so it really needs a sense of irony or wit. Grounds-keeping has no sense of irony, so all we get is a kind of self-important reflection on the tortured significance of writing and writer. And this unfortunately detracts from the beautiful depictions of both physical settings and the emotional state of Owen as he deals with the fractures and tragedies of his own family, the joys and strains of his romance with Alma, and, yes, his struggles to write and find his place in the world, all set against the backdrop of Trump’s political ascendancy in 2016.
It all culminates in a depressingly irritating ending: ‘this was not a book. It was my life.’ Such a clunky attempt at hyper-meta-realism completely ruins what had been built up into a genuinely moving moment. It has all the accidental irony of, ‘I woke up and it was all a dream’. And it’s a shame because this is a book worth reading; it is, for most of its pages, a touching portrayal of ‘two little people who’d tried to love each other in the middle of a mess’. But I can’t quite get over the fact that Lee Cole is a gifted storyteller who repeatedly undermines his ability to tell a great story.