Brother of the More Famous Jack, Barbara Trapido
My reading ‘discovery’ of 2022 was Barbara Trapido, a writer whose name, once you’ve heard it, will then seem to be tripping off the lips of every female writer and book person over the age of thirty. That’s not to say her books aren’t for younger people, but perhaps that much of their joy lies in Trapido’s own wisdom by the time she found her way to her writing desk. She became a full-time writer around the age of thirty, and her first novel Brother of the More Famous Jack was published in 1982, when she was 41, followed by Noah’s Ark in 1984.
I read and adored both of these. The former was a gift from my friend Daisy and felt like the key to a secret world. Secret and permissible, because Trapido’s style is entirely her own and feels indulgent in these pared back days where economy of language is so often praised over quality or generosity or richness. Her characters are bohemian upper middle class types, and unapologetically so. The re-issue of Brother Jack prompted renewed popularity in Trapido, who is from Cape Town, South Africa, but moved to the UK to teach and ended up in Oxford where her husband was a lecturer, which explains her insights into oddball academic families, strange British mores and eccentric moneyed madness.
Her books are comedic, often reaching for farce, crammed with characters making terrible decisions or recovering from them. But they are also tragic and heart-stoppingly humane, compiled of endless amusing remarks and character quirks and clever anecdotes and seemingly irrelevant incidents, building so often to crescendos of trauma, which Trapido can then dismiss in a line or two, devastating the reader.
She is brilliant at slaying men. They appear to get an easier ride than they would in contemporary novels, it being the 1980s, or so I feared at first, but she never lets them get away. Nor do the women, to be fair. There are a good number of wispy waspy unsecured beauties wandering round her stories, and she holds them all to account.
Overall her novels are tremendous fun and tremendously moving. I’m not the sort of person to use the word tremendous, so that gives you an idea of the tone and milieu, which are both dense with detail and rich in empathy throughout. My second read was Noah’s Ark, which features surely the worst ever ex husband in the history of stories, then The Travelling Hornplayer, probably Trapido’s best-known novel and so far my favourite, for the way it moved me. Next up is Frankie and Stankie - saving it for a weekend when I can hope for few interruptions.