Going Home by Tom Lamont review – vibrant debut of fathers and sons

Téo Erskine has done everything he can to escape the force field of home: the weighty parental guilt trips, the dangerous enticements of a poker game with the old gang, the possible late-night glimpse of a long-term crush in a crowded pub. He has made it all the way from a tight-knit Jewish community in Enfield, north London, to the urban anonymity of Aldgate, east London. Further! “You might call it as far as Whitechapel, yeah,” he tells a sceptical shopkeeper. He’s a man in his 30s. He has a car. He can visit for a night or two and slope straight back to the liberty of the city.

He can, that is, until tragedy delivers the abrupt responsibility of a surrogate child: a two-year-old boy, “stomach stout and proud as a grandad at the beach”. The presence of Joel – creative in his demands, avid for play, sleepless and shipwrecked by grief – pins Téo in place, trapping him in his own childhood home cheek by jowl with his demanding father. Vic is another lost and fatherless boy, pitched back into the insecurities of infancy by his failing body.

Téo’s task is to manage this overload of responsibility, to winkle out its pleasures on the fly. And what pleasures they are. It’s rare to read something that captures with such unsentimentality a child’s range, their rapidly shifting obsessions, the quiddities of their language, their cunning wiles, the “busy managerial patter” of their games.

For years I’ve been keeping a running tally of convincing children in adult novels. Fox-obsessed Max in Esther Freud’s Peerless Flats. Chatty, dyslexic Leo in AS Byatt’s Frederica Quartet. The preternaturally articulate Thomas in Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk. Joel, with his “unreasonable eyes, toad’s eyes … just gorgeous”, is fully singular, tightly observed, expanding daily. He confides a secret about himself: “I grow.”

This is the journalist Tom Lamont’s first novel, and it has the kind of plot that feels fine tuned and long thought out. A lot happens in a small space as the narrative passes between Téo and Vic and their two closest satellites: the local rabbi, Sibyl, her faith wavering, and Ben, Téo’s best friend. Ben is handsome, vain, arrogant, impossibly self-absorbed, something of a lost boy in his own right.

A sequence of small decisions has devastating consequences. People don’t so much change as invert their personalities. Could a self-declared “greedy piglet” transform into a loving caregiver? The clockwork propulsion of events, and their domino tumble into crisis, feels a touch too authorially engineered. What saves the novel from being forced or formulaic is the depth of Lamont’s engagement with his characters, and especially his capacity to situate them in a lived, firmly dimensional world.

Weather systems, from a child’s tantrum to a passing burst of rain, are logged in sprightly, unexpected language briskly evading cliche. Cards get a “fertile, gummy feel from an hour’s constant use”. Mirrors “amplify the space and excavate new territory”.

Sibyl aside, this is really a book about men. It’s about male friendship and the dynamics between fathers and sons. Fatherless Vic struggled to nurture his own boy and now demands more devotion than can possibly be given. But Téo is generous enough to realise that he couldn’t be the tender, elastic caregiver he manages to become without having had some kind of benign fatherhood modelled for him. Both men thrive in proximity to Joel, the energetic dictator of their household, drawing them into his infectiously animated relationship with the mundane. A stick, a splinter, a sofa cushion: each once-ordinary object has the capacity to amaze.

The relationship between Ben and Téo is explosive. They are mates, which is to say excellent at manipulating each other, quick to take umbrage, not above trading punches or ghosting one another. Their friendship is vested in football, poker, pills, pure lad stuff, yet they still nudge and chivvy each other towards openness and growth.

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I can’t say I loved the tidiness of the ending, but I’ve read Going Home twice now and I still don’t feel as if I’ve tapped its power. Children seem to be more alive than adults, keener, less jaded, and this novel feels the same, pepped up and gorgeous, just bristling with life.

Going Home by Tom Lamont is published by Sceptre (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

The Guardian

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