Blurb from Goodreads
It is 1987 and a small Irish community is preparing for the wedding of two of its young inhabitants. They’re barely adults, not so long out of school and still part of the same set of friends they’ve grown up with. As the friends head home from the beach that last night before the wedding, there is a car accident. Three survive the crash but three are killed. And the reverberations are felt throughout the small town.
Connor, the young driver of the car, lives. But staying among the angry and the mourning is almost as hard as living with the shame, and so he leaves the only place he knows for another life. Travelling first to Liverpool, then London, by the noughties he has made a home – of sorts – for himself in New York. The city provides shelter and possibility for the displaced, somewhere Connor can forget his past and forge a new life.
But the secrets, the unspoken longings and regrets that have come to haunt those left behind will not be silenced. And before long, Connor will have to meet his past.
Home Stretch is the third novel from BBC presenter Graham Norton and it’s an absolute triumph.
I’ve previously read both Holding, his debut, and A Keeper and enjoyed both; finding A Keeper a stronger read with a more cohesive narrative than his debut… and I’m delighted to say that with this third novel Norton is again improving his skills as a storyteller.
The story is one that has influences from many small towns in that it examines how stigma and secrets can affect the day to day life of a community’s inhabitants. In a small Irish town in the late summer of 1987, there’s a tragic car accident that changes the lives of the car’s young occupants, killing three and altering the paths of the remaining three, and has a deep and reverberating impact on the local town.
The story primarily focuses on the life of Connor who was the driver of the car and how the accident made him feel even more isolated from his family than he already was. He feels the wrath of the community and shame hangs around his neck at every turn, and then decides to take off for the building sites of Liverpool to lose himself to the anonymity of that way of life.
But he soon finds that life as a young gay man is complicated even in the bright lights of that city and is forced to move further afield [London, New York], and once and for all he cuts all remaining ties with his home.
Back in Ireland, Connor’s sister Ellen finds herself strangely contented that her troubled brother has left home and she can’t believe her luck when Martin, the doctor’s son and one of the survivors of the crash, shows an interest in her and they start dating.
The main characters in this book are truly memorable. I found it so easy to empathise with both Connor and Ellen and was hooked on seeing how their lives would evolve over the course of the years… this novel starts in 1987 and ends in the present day. But there is a particular character in this book that you will hate, and yet your heart will break for them. I’ve never felt such a mix of sadness and anger at a character before. Norton truly wrote a brilliantly complex story with so much light and shade.
The strength of this novel lies in its authenticity. This novel feels true. It feels real. It feels like you’re actually reading snapshots of lives of real people. The emotions are so keenly felt, so raw at times… this is honestly a brilliantly written piece when it comes to how it explores ever changing attitudes to modern life especially regarding the stigma that there was about being a gay man in the late 80s and 90s.
It’s such a heartbreaking read in many ways because so much of this novel is about both internalised shame and internalised homophobia, and my heart just broke for Connor especially. His whole life was tainted with regret and sadness, but more than anything with a sort of helplessness. He was frozen by the casual homophobia of 1980s Ireland and kept it inside him his whole life. It was painful to see how the cavalier and unfeeling attitudes of the society of his youth dictated his life’s path and kept him from knowing true happiness.
Norton very smartly contrasted Connor’s life-story with the experience of a much younger gay Irish man, Finbar, who was introduced later in the novel. It was incredibly fascinating to see how these two men who shared so much cultural identity had such different life experiences due to the difference in societal attitudes when they were both teenagers.
And then when the story focuses on Ellen there’s the most compelling examination of seemingly dead-end marriage and how that affects her. Her character arc is so well written. She starts out with this bright passion for life but when she finds that her brother’s involvement in the car accident paints her as a pariah too it makes her feel as trapped as Connor. But in Martin she can’t believe her luck… and the story follows her from blushing bride thinking that marriage will somehow make things right again, to a middle aged woman whose spark has been dimmed by a life that did not turn out as hoped.
But don’t think that this novel is all sadness and misery… because to me there’s great hope in it. I think there’s this wonderful message that the human spirit can triumph. That we can find the right path for ourselves even if it takes a little longer than we expected. The novel just perfectly marries bitterness and sweetness in my opinion and I felt incredibly satisfied when I turned the final page.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who likes character driven stories and/or family sagas. This is a brilliant, and truly rewarding reading experience, and has firmly placed Graham Norton in the list of my favourite authors.
*An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley. This review contains my honest thoughts and opinions*
publishing 1st October 2020, Hodder & Stoughton