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The History Student

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by Graham Jones 

Graham Jones, 2005 
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The first thing that gave me difficulty in reading Graham Jones’ novel, The History Student, was the use of the letter "d". Mr Jones uses this instead of the "th" sound, to convey the fact that this is how the narrator talks. Fair enough, only that the narrator isn’t talking, he’s writing, and presumably when writing he does not spell all these words with a "d" – because he wants people to understand his meaning. Thus a sentence like "Dat was de kind of ding mum did" evokes nothing so much as a late sixties’ novelty pop song. Let’s just hope, I thought, that this book is going to be funny.

Unfortunately, it’s not. There is humour here, but nowhere near enough.

Reading a novel in electronic format is not an easy thing to do at the best of times, but this technique doesn’t help. Our brains and eyes have got used to having their reading matter presented in page-sized chunks. Most of the works I have read on screen have been in PDF format, which looks pretty much like an ordinary book. The History Student is presented as one apparently never-ending page, only broken up by chapter numbers, and this is as off-putting as trying to drink two pints out of the same glass when you are only used to drinking a half-pint. I have to admit, I was tempted to give up very early on.

The style, apart from the liberal sprinkling of "d"s, is both complex and elegant. The story is set in Ireland, which for some reason always seems to mean that the characters have to have odd names such as Bosco. But perhaps this is just racist of me. Perhaps Bosco is no more uncommon in Ireland than Dai is in Wales – I haven’t spent enough time there to be sure, so I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt on that one and concentrate on the plot. According to the blurb, it’s " the story of an eejit called Neary Aalben who manages to stop the world killing for a day". Sounds like quite an achievement, doesn’t it? Needless to say, that’s not really what the book is about.

The novel was originally written as a screenplay, but I must say I can’t see this as a successful film. There’s not enough action. For example, much of the early part of the story is about Neary’s relationship with his parents, and only a very clever writer can make that work on screen. Of course, if it wasn’t a very good screenplay, then turning it into a novel was a sensible thing to do. I’ve certainly, in the past, changed some of my work from one genre to another, and I would advise other aspiring writers to experiment in the same way.

All in all, it’s an enjoyable read if you can apply yourself. I’m very much afraid most people won’t be able to. The world has got a long way to go before we’re ready to leave the printed page behind.

Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher