By BRUCE DENNILL
What Milo Saw by Virginia Macgregor 7
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman 8
The Good Luck Of Right Now by Matthew Quick 6.5
Every so often a theme will become evident in a number of titles released independently around the same time. It’s interesting to speculate as to whether these themes are a reflection of holes that need filling in greater society or whether that sort of thing is simply conjecture on the part of a reader who is in a particular psychological space.
Whatever the case, anyone reading What Milo Saw by Viginia Macgregor, A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman or The Good Luck Of Right Now by Matthew Quick (whose Silver Linings Playbook was made into a multi award-winning film) in quick succession would likely conclude that a) there are perhaps more interesting fringe characters in our shared narrative than many of us have yet noticed, and b) these people have fascinating, important stories to tell; tales from which we can all learn something.
Milo Moon is a sweet, caring kid with an eye condition rendering his sight increasingly poor – two characteristics that lead those around him to believe he is incapable of either being aware of his surroundings or able to process what he can see in a meaningful way. Ove is the archetypal grumpy old man, bitter about everything and incredibly petty. Unsurprisingly, those who know him suspect that he has never bothered to take cognisance of them and their needs and would find said needs trivial of he had. Bartholomew Neil is approaching middle age but has never had to fend for himself in any respect and so is terribly poorly-equipped to do so when his beloved mother passes away. Little or nothing is expected from him by his community, and with such poor motivation, what inspiration could he have to change?
Creating characters who appear to be failures seems like an odd strategy for an author to invest in, but of course they’re smart and they’ve thought this through: from someone to whom very little has ostensibly been given, even less is expected, and off that base, every positive move seems like a giant step towards credibility and likeability.
Virginia Macgregor’s child hero Milo is the easiest of the trio to empathise with. Coming from a broken home, he feels the weight of having his closest human friend (he has a pet pig who’s also a prized companion), his grandmother, shuttled off to an old-age home. His discovery – it’s a Dahlian construct, put together with a touch more sensitivity – that the woman who runs the home considers her charges an income stream first and human beings a very distant second leads Milo to hatch a plan to help her out. His overcoming of his own disabilities as well the lack of belief in his capabilities by others is a happy by-product of this quest, and both threads entertain and satisfy in equal amounts.
Cantankerous Swede Ove transcribes the widest arc as a character, perhaps because his problems are self-made. He’s a talented man in a great many respects and has a fierce discipline that makes failure a near-impossibility – in practical terms, anyway. Ove has very nearly zero EQ, but as Fredrik Backman introduces new neighbours and acquaintances into his protagonist’s life, cracks begin to appear in Ove’s hard-man exterior. This process, part breakdown and part rebirth, is described in writing of great warmth and gruff humour. There’s a film version on the way, and if the director doesn’t hash things up, the chance to laugh, cry and contemplate the complexities of life all over again should thrill fans of this book (which should include 99% of its readers).
The pity pendulum swings back the other way again in the case of Bartholomew Neil. It’s not his fault that his mother was left alone to raise him and found herself unable to give him the guidance he needed without the help of a strong male influence. And given that background, it’s fair enough that, despite being nearly 40, he seeks direction in strange places, including in the person of a friend named Max, whose language makes the characters in the film Goodfellas, taken collectively, seem the epitome of old-fashioned good manners. Matthew Sweet does, however, have a knack for revealing the humanity below battered experiences, and the journey – existential and physical – that Bartholomew and his cohorts go on is thought-provoking, amusing and occasionally dipped in pathos.
Three underdogs, three cleverly-fashioned plots, three satisfying outcomes.