Always the Sun by Neil Cross
How far should a father go to protect his son? The question posed by Neil Cross’ fourth novel is an intriguing one though not one that is satisfactorily answered in this initially gripping but ultimately bitter and bleak story of one man’s revenge.
Still mourning the death of his wife, Sam, together with his thirteen year old son Jamie, moves back to the town in which he grew up to be closer to his older sister. They sell their flat in Hackney and Jamie starts a new school. But it soon becomes clear that he is struggling to settle in, he truants often and Sam finds out his son has become the target for a local bully. Understandably troubled, he takes it upon himself to confront the culprit’s father, Dave Hooper, a slaughterhouse worker who makes his indifference to his son’s actions quite clear. When an altercation with one of the Hooper boys leaves Jamie with physical scars as well as emotional ones, an already fragile Sam is tipped over the edge and the situation escalates out of control.
The casual cruelty of the playground is fertile ground for fiction but it is not really the subject matter here. Little information is provided about the nature of the bullying Jamie is subjected to, instead Cross concentrates on the way his father handles the situation, his desperate need to intervene even if it only makes things worse. Initially Sam’s anger and frustration are realistically depicted but as the situation rapidly deteriorates, the story becomes far less plausible.
The prose style of Always The Sun is flat, simple and somewhat uneven, every fried breakfast and hastily prepared snack is described in detail, yet Sam’s job as a mental health worker remains a grey, undefined area and the Hoopers are never more than faceless stereotypes. Though tautly plotted, the narrative quickly ceases to be credible as it veers into darker territory and the threatened violence suddenly becomes appallingly real; it does however feature one raw, perfectly-pitched shock which it saves for the closing pages.
Cross is at his most successful when he reigns in the excesses of the plot. In the opening chapters of the novel he captures wonderfully the inarticulate but affectionate relationship between a father and his adolescent son, and he also subtly depicts the moments of unvoiced understanding between the bereaved Sam and his older sister Mel, but as he attempts to turn this essentially domestic tale into a thriller he loses his deft touch and the recognisable world he has created quickly collapses in on itself. A real shame as the novels central idea is a strong one.