Guest is the ironic title of this coming of age novel about a young man who squats in a former hotel. The title calls to mind the uninvited wedding guest or one of the absent friends and relatives your mother might raise a glass to at Christmas meals. Who is the guest here? Is it squatters Samhain, Frankie and Roxy? Is it Sam’s dad, an intruder to the Green movement or is it Sam’s band who spend the second act touring various squats on mainland Europe? Probably all of the above and yes, the story is told in three acts, setting out its ambition to be a dramatic work of literature from the outset. It succeeds but with a welcome northern grit that saves it from any suggestion of pretension.
The pace of the novel is quick, the plot neatly-packed as the boxes Samhain is employed to shift from house to house. Sam is used to moving regularly, transience still a part of his life as he searches for his foundations so he can be equipped to provide stronger ones for his own daughter should the opportunity arise.
The book is prefaced with a legal notice that the squat dwellers put on the hotel door and opens with Samhain’s friend Frankie dismantling the hotel’s locks just as Samhain is about to unpick his own identity. I was fascinated by the machinations of squat living. Although I lived an empty-stomached, squattesque life in my youth* – three of us sharing one room in a self-contained flat participating in multiple hedonistic and ahem unconventional behaviours – I’ve never lived in an actual squat. I’m not suggesting Guest is a manual for squat dwellers but… if you were interested in occupying uninhabited buildings, you might pick up a few techniques here.
One of Bradley’s strengths is the way she draws even minor characters so distinctly in a line or two that they hold fast in the mind, even for a reader like me who has a shaky and not particularly visual memory. ‘Crinkled envelope eyes: a smile with one molar missing’ (p4) or ‘a woman in a worn blazer, shiny back, with the life completely ironed out of it. She looked tired in the face, as though she’d been a real person once, and then something had happened to wash the good fortune away’ (29). With phrases like this there is no need to return to flesh out the characters.
In contrast with boozy, Peter Pan Frankie who has feet that give ‘off a smell to flatten a tower block’, the women in Guest are pragmatic and tough, capable with bikes and people (259). The tattooed, flamboyant Roxy, ‘the taste of whisky in her sweat’, his capable friend Mart, the ‘red-headed, spanner-carrying angel’, Samhain’s mother and ex-girlfriend are catalysts for his story (9, 256). But I was convinced they also have their own conflicts and joys, narrative threads that unfold elsewhere.
Those of us who even occasionally brush up against the activist scene in Leeds know of the Mark Stone case that must have provided some inspiration for this novel. The police do not come across well here, at best being portrayed as gullible, at worst aggressive and manipulative. Sam’s undercover police officer father isn’t given a direct voice in the novel. Had he been presented as a nuanced character I would have liked to have heard what he has to say. But then, as a white middle class man in a position of power, maybe his perspective is not important here. Besides he has a proxy who we imagine hasn’t fallen far from the tree. He certainly has nothing meaningful to offer Sam.
Guest is a unified novel, every extended metaphor relevant to Samhain’s journey. When the pregnant cat makes its home on his bed, he has the opportunity to practice his parental skills but initially he runs away from his responsibility). How is he to become a father without having one of his own? The symbol of the absent father is prevalent, eluded to first by the absent hotel owner who has left a shell for Sam and his friends to inhabit. Yet it can only be a temporary home. Being a guest frees you of responsibilities and it can be fun. But, to be a fully-functioning adult, at home in yourself, to be a reliable parent you have to stop passing through and become resident.
*The subject of my first and as yet unpublished first novel.