Isn’t it funny, the way many modern writers seem to believe a violent story can’t be told without showing us the violence?
I’m not denying that writing convincingly about violence is a skill. But, in my opinion, there’s an equal amount of dexterity that’s required to deal with violence indirectly, too. The modern trend might be for gritty realism, for brutal detail – but after spending so long reading books from the early twentieth century, I’ve come to really appreciate the seemingly lost art of subtlety. I’m not saying it’s necessarily a better way of doing things: it’s just different.
A novel can still be effective without subjecting us to every sordid detail of the violence that takes place between its pages.
Case in point:
by Graham Greene
Published in 1938
Welcome to Brighton, England – a holiday haven by the sea; a heady world of penny attractions and pretty lights. For some, at least.
Beneath that picture-postcard exterior lurks something more sinister, a gloomy world of bitter poverty and meaningless crime.
Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is one of the moodiest, most atmospheric novels I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s so unrelentingly dark and depressing – and I loved every sentence.
At just seventeen years of age, Pinkie Brown has been left in charge of his gang after their previous leader was murdered by a rival group. As the novel opens, Pinkie takes his revenge on Fred Hale, a former journalist who somehow betrayed Pinkie’s gang.
When the police find Hale died of natural causes, Pinkie is sure he’s managed to get away with murder. But there’s a flaw in his plan. Rose, a sixteen-year-old waitress holds a piece of information that could be the downfall of Pinkie’s gang. Pinkie has two choices. He could either kill Rose – or he could marry her, and legally, she wouldn’t be able to testify against him in court. Either way, she’ll be silenced.
Meanwhile, Ida Arnold, a middle-aged woman who had a chance encounter with Fred Hale on the last day of his life suspects Pinkie killed Hale, and she won’t give up until justice is served.
Don’t let this novel deceive you. Brighton Rock is remarkably dense, in spite of its mere 269 pages. There’s a lot to admire about this cleverly-constructed novel; from the way Greene establishes a stifling, tense atmosphere, to the frenetic, complicated psyche of his main character, to the way the novel’s plot extends beyond the boundaries of the pages.
Let’s start with Pinkie. After all, Brighton Rock is his story. He’s seventeen and seething. Life disgusts him. Women disgust him. Pretty much everything disgusts him. Pinkie is so overflowing with vitriol, he carries a bottle of the stuff with him – just in case. Add to that a particularly generous helping of Catholic guilt, a double serving of debilitating poverty, and you’ve got Pinkie Brown – a bundle of frustration, fear and confusion that’s ready to explode. It’s really just a matter of time.
It’s quite uncomfortable reading, watching poor, naïve Rose fall for Pinkie. Sixteen and inexperienced, Rose adores Pinkie blindly, merely because he shows a vague interest in her. Greene paints Rose and Pinkie different shades of the same hue; giving them names that are essentially variations of the same colour. There’s much the two have in common: primarily their poverty and their religion.
Yes, religion. Catholicism rests strangely in between the pages of this bleak little novel, but it’s nonetheless a major theme of Brighton Rock. Pinkie and Rose are unquestioningly Catholic – and terrified of the punishment awaiting them for their sins. In contrast, Ida Arnold believes confidently in her Ouija board. On Brighton pier, you can have your fortune told by a machine for a penny. It’s a strange world Greene sets up – a tantalising dichotomy of the ephemeral and the everlasting.
It’s Brighton Rock‘s relentless air of tension that really had me hooked. Greene effectively casts us deep into the midst of a dangerous, alluring world where a penny can be exchanged for a moment of amusement, a piece of candy, a cheap souvenir, or even another’s thoughts. A penny for your thoughts – it’s a phrase that haunts this novel.
Even more impressive is the way Greene’s plot hinges on cheap trinkets. A dropped flower, a novelty record made on the pier with a chilling personalised message. An image snapped by chance by a passing street photographer.
The plot of Brighton Rock is as perfectly constructed and efficient as a piece of Swedish furniture. It’s larger than the book itself: the novel’s story begins before the first page, and it ends after the novel’s final, chilling sentence.
Despite the fact that Brighton Rock is quite a violent novel, most of the violence occurs offstage. The murder that forms the focal point of the novel is missing completely, so we’re never really sure exactly how it occurred. We’re left to piece it together from the stray breadcrumbs Greene scatters here and there – and it’s not pretty. It’s much more intriguing than seeing the actual murder itself. The book’s few violent moments are described in a confused haze, and yet, they lose none of their impact. It all adds to the novel’s looming, unsettling feel.
Greene’s unique style really resonated with me. His writing is a strange blend of clarity and alluring murkiness – and it works so well. I found Greene’s writing highly readable, but if you’re a fan of simple clarity, you mightn’t agree.
Brighton Rock isn’t perfect. There’s the odd faux pas here and there. It’s a little frustrating when Greene moves away from Pinkie and Rose and toys with other characters I simply didn’t care about as much. And there’s something about the way the novel is narrated that I found implausible. Absolutely lovely, but implausible.
Just like the candy that gives this novel its name, Brighton Rock is a complicated, dense novel of many layers. Yet, through them all, at the very centre, there’s something that remains the same – that unrelenting atmosphere that just won’t let go. Even once you’ve turned the final page.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should you read it?
Well, I think you should. In fact, I wish I’d read this much earlier, in the gloomfest of my late teens and early twenties. But it might not be for everyone. Greene’s writing has a lovely haziness about it that mightn’t appeal to you. But as for me, I think it’s a brilliant example of a novel that just works on so many fronts.
In a word: