Reviewed by Rod McLary
Social isolation, loneliness and dying alone [and not being found for days or weeks or even months] are the themes which run through this debut novel by Richard Roper. The idea for the book was sparked by a law in England that, where people have died without family or friends to arrange burial or cremation, local authorities are obliged to make those arrangements. A council employee searches the deceased person’s house or apartment for any record of kith or kin. Where there is none, the council then proceeds with the arrangements.
An interesting and somewhat unusual premise for a book, one would think. But Richard Roper has managed to author a book which covers these themes with some warmth and humour.
Andrew works for a local authority and his job is to do exactly as is described above. This job -for all its unpleasantness when bodies are not found for some time – suits him as he is himself reclusive and avoids contact with people as much as he can. Somewhat stereotypically, he is 42 years old, lives alone in a rather shabby flat, is an aficionado of Ella Fitzgerald, and has a model train-set permanently set up in his flat. He also has an aversion for the famous song Blue Moon. The reason for this aversion becomes clear towards the end of the book but a preliminary reading of the song’s lyrics will provide some clues.
Andrew also has the misfortune to be required to work with a rather odd group of people. There is Keith who has an inadequate sense of personal hygiene, Meredith who is pathologically nosey, and the boss Cameron who, according to Andrew, ‘was a dead ringer for a young Wallace from Wallace and Grommit and had bulbous eyes that were too close together and large front teeth that jutted down unevenly like stalactites’ .
While there is some humour to be found in work colleagues who have unattractive personal traits, Keith and Cameron in particular seem almost like caricatures. Then to compound his personal and work issues, Andrew, answering a question from Cameron which he later realises he has misheard, finds that he has created for himself a wife and two children. This fiction – once entrenched in the minds of his colleagues – is almost impossible to erase. Strangely, Andrew makes no real attempt to dispel the fiction and even goes to the extent of creating a spreadsheet into which he inserts as many ‘factual’ things about his family as he can. He includes hair colour, height, weight, age etc for each of the ‘family members’ so that he can maintain the fiction at work and answer any question a colleague may ask – such as, ‘and what grade is [your son] David in now?’
This reader felt like giving him a good shake and telling him to wake up!
However, a new person joins the workgroup – Peggy. Peggy is married with two children [really] but her marriage is troubled. One can readily see where this is going and the progress towards the anticipated conclusion is facilitated by Andrew and Peggy having to work closely together in their visits to the homes of their deceased clients. Along the way, there are some inevitable social disasters such as the work dinner party which ends much as it began – badly.
This is all rather predictable and there is really not much new about a social misfit finding true love with someone who is more outgoing, more socially adept and more prepared to take charge of the emerging relationship. The story is leavened by jokes which are perhaps a little overworked and consequently fall a little flat. But there are some moments of humour and there is one section where Andrew reveals why Blue Moon affects him so adversely. This section is well worth the reading. Unfortunately, it is not enough to carry the book which ultimately is disappointing.
Something to Live For
by Richard Roper
ISBN 978 1 4091 8560 4