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Summat Else

by Royston Tester

Over the 13 linked stories comprising this debut collection from Birmingham, England-born, Toronto resident Royston Tester, our protagonist, Enoch, is clubbed with one revelation after another: his father’s illiteracy, his own nascent and tumultuous sexuality, his long-kept-secret adoption. That he maintains his sharp wit and gentle self-deprecatory sense of humour throughout might seem an almost superhuman feat, yet it comes off as entirely natural rendered in Tester’s quippy, idiomatic prose. The worlds of these stories refuse to sag under the weight of hardship. Instead, Tester’s evident affection for his subjects acts as a buoy, imparting even the grimmest scenes with a beguiling lightness.

This all sounds very British – and it is. (The title alone should give notice of that.) But the Britishness never descends into caricature, nor does the prominence and vividness of the Black Country north of Birmingham mark Summat Else as worthwhile for Anglophiles alone. Tester’s greatest strength lies in the creation of memorable characters. Take Mr. O’Dowd, who comes to appraise Enoch’s dead mother’s possessions only to share his own grief over the loss of his favourite dairy cow, or Mike Malin, the reform-school physical training coach liable to “one day just slice your neck, then stop himself and apologize to the severed head.”

The book’s structure is its only major flaw. While story sequences do impart a unity often missing from less focused collections, they can also seem like novels with sloppily-placed gaps. As we follow Enoch from his caravan childhood in Birmingham to a County Durham detention centre to a young adulthood spent turning tricks in Barcelona and searching for his birth mother, the revelations seem to come too suddenly. Uneven temporal shifts between stories disrupt the book’s pacing, particularly in the shift backward from 1975 to 1954 in the last three stories, which switch focus from Enoch to his mother Nancy. An appendix of fictional correspondence reads more like a cinematic wrap-up device than a significant contribution to the narrative.

Such corner-cutting is all the more a shame in a book whose best scenes lilt perfectly between the highly original and the intensely, lovably familiar.