"Once: A Belmouth Tale" Book Review
Written by Tony Jones
Published by Independently Published
Written by David J. Thacker
2019, 217 pages, Fiction
Released on 21st July, 2019
Dan Edwards does not have what most folks would call a ‘day job’, instead he works as a professional storyteller. Not surprisingly, there is not money in this game and he struggles to pay his share of the rent, stressing out his girlfriend along the way who would rather he get a 9-5 job and be home at a reasonable time instead of hanging out in pubs until last orders at the bar. Dave also enjoys a drink and clearly loves his job, as the next pint is never far away!
The setting is one of the major strengths of Once: A Belmouth Tale and it had me guessing which out of season English seaside town ‘Belmouth’ was based upon. In the endnotes the author drops a few hints but does not specify. When my daughter was smaller we visited most of these seaside towns, so there is a good chance I have been there. The pubs are atmospherically and vividly described, as are the windswept deserted streets, the ritual of stopping for a ‘fish-supper’ on the way home and the driving rain lashing in from the sea. The wintry seaside town can be an empty and cold place. Welcome to England everyone! Home sweet home to many.
One wonders whether anybody (adults and children alike) in the world of 2019 would seriously be interested in listening to a guy on a stool spilling stories. After all, is that not what YouTube, television and cinema is for? However, this is another strength of the story; the way Dave puts across his tales will make you want to listen closely. He has a knack of pulling listeners into the yarn effectively, as he has a very beguiling ‘gift of the gab’ and may retell the same story with different variations depending on a particular audience. I enjoyed the way the novel approaches the lost art of ‘storytelling’ and in an odd way found it quite comforting, as it harks back to the Victorian and Edwardian era where families sat around the fire and listened to future classics by the likes of MR James, having great fun scaring each other.
When Once: A Belmouth Tale opens, Dan is busy organising the imminent annual Storytelling Festival and has booked other performers in addition to himself. The chosen venues will be pubs, clubs, open spaces, parks and libraries. The first story Dan tells concerns a wife who slowly starts to eat parts of herself, which she then begins to feed to her unsuspecting husband when he returns from work. Effectively there are many ‘stories within stories’, most of which are David Thacker’s own retelling of classic folk tales from around the world. On the whole these are very entertaining, they are not totally immersive, as it is always obvious Dan is the one in charge with a clever knack of balancing laughs and scares.
On the night Dan tells the cannibal story there is a murder in Belmouth, which is suspiciously similar to what happens in the pub tale. Dan is incredibly slow on the uptake and the reader twigs straight away this has become reality in some way. This is undoubtedly way too obvious and at this point the reader might be forgiven for thinking, even at this early stage, the cat is out of the bag and all that lies ahead is a sequence of interconnected stories. Such a simplistic and formulaic pattern may well have quickly become repetitive. However, the plot has a major, some might think outlandish, twist halfway through which takes it in another direction and breaks up the story-within-story sequence of events. I am fairly good at predicting plot twists, but this one is a real corker and although it might not be to all reader’s tastes, I enjoyed the bizarre nature of it.
It is nice to hear Thacker’s take on some well-known stories and he puts an engaging fresh spin on them. The spoken word and improvised story is most definitely a dying art and it is great to see Once: a Belmouth Tale shine a light on a much-neglected type of performance theatre. This really is a book of two halves and your overall opinion may well be decided by how well you think they gel together. I like books which try to do something different and this is an original take on a familiar idea of interconnecting short stories in a wider plot arc.
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