Jim Morphy reviews the new novel from Peter Benson, The Stromness Dinner, a story of unlikely relationships set in Orkney.
Peter Benson’s debut novel, The Levels (1987), won the Guardian Fiction Prize, marking him out as a rare talent. Drenched through with its Somerset-setting, it tells a coming-of-age love story as basket-maker Billy meets Muriel, who is down for the summer from London.
Since then, Benson has demonstrated an appetite to defy expectation. His work has ranged from private eye novels (A Private Moon) to gothic thrillers (Isabel’s Skin), from historical dramas (Odo’s Hanging) to modern adventure yarns (such as Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke).
Despite his genre-hopping, labour, close relationships and a sense of place have remained interests. Benson’s latest, The Stromness Dinner, again sees these themes to the fore; however, the novel fails to reach the heights of his best books.
Our narrator is Ed Beech, a twenty-nine-year-old builder from Bermondsey. He’s proud to be an uncomplicated guy. And The Stromness Dinner is a straight-forward story straight-forwardly told.
After doing renovation work for the wealthy Marcus, Ed is offered a week’s gig clearing out his client’s deceased-father’s Orkney home. Ed has never been north of Gretna Green, so he’s up for the trip. And when Marcus’ sister, Claire, comes to join him, gentle adventure turns into life-changing experience.
Benson bets big on Ed’s narrative voice. Ed tells his tale with no mundane detail spared. In the first two paragraphs alone, he explains that Margate is by the sea and that Bermondsey is an area of London (which he says again later, for good measure).
Ed chummily describes his routines and interests. These include the family building business, and a love of cooking that grows in relevance as the story develops. He questions what would’ve happened if beer hadn’t been invented.
The story of The Stromness Dinner is recounted in chronological, factual fashion. We get a little on Ed’s backstory, including too much information on his sexual history (of course he wants to tell us that he has lost count of the number of women he has slept with). Ed isn’t one for earnest reflection, although there’s a nice flicker of regret and hope under the surface.
Sentences are short. Language is plain. It is a daring move by Benson to pare down his literary style to create his narrator’s voice. But the pay-off doesn’t quite seem worth it.
The Stromness Dinner runs for seventy pages before Ed gets to Orkney. Once there, his escapades lead him to a series of oddball characters. A subplot involving a missing bowl resolves itself in simple fashion. It is Ed’s relationship with Claire that gives the book its narrative thrust. Ed’s world is turning. And we get glimpses of city-financier Claire’s perspective changing too.
Benson again succeeds in conjuring up a sense of place. There’s a satisfying specificity to Ed’s descriptions of Orkney: the Ring of Brodgar, The Setter Stone and The Ferry Inn are visited. Cruise-ship holidaymakers are a regular presence. The sunsets and sea-views are enjoyed.
The Stromness Dinner earns its place in Benson’s eclectic back-catalogue. But, ultimately, it is far from Benson’s strongest work. And it is not helped by grammatical errors that suggest the book’s editing has lacked due care.
For Benson aficionados, Stromness provides a comfortable read. For those new to his name, it’s worth starting elsewhere, perhaps all the way back with his prize-winning debut effort.
The Stromness Dinner by Peter Benson is available now from Seren.
Jim Morphy is a critic and regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.