Toxic masculinity has become a bit of a buzzword in recent months. From Piers Morgan’s ranty columns about fellas carrying their own infants to razor adverts causing men to be ‘driven out of society’, all the way to genuine, interesting conversations about the harmful restrictions we place on men, the data suggests that UK men are three times as likely to die by suicide than women.
Despite these statistics, I was yet to come across many novels that openly discuss this topic, and I’d certainly not found one written by a male author. But here we are. Set in the fictional Quarry Lane, debut author Ben Halls has created 10 intertwining stories which cover such diverse topics as social mobility, isolation, class and masculinity. Even the name of the estate (and the novel) implies something being torn down, mined and reduced to ruins. The potential for violence courses through the pages. “You can see it in them; all that anger inside, it’s toxic,” writes Hall. “Throw some drink into it and everything bubbles over.”
But it isn’t all doom and gloom. There are moments of real humanity, connection and camaraderie here. In Central, we’re introduced to two men, one who sits at home all day on his mum’s PC and the other who managed to escape the estate with a role in the navy. Together they embark on a wild night fuelled by casino winnings in London’s West End. But things aren’t always as they seem. By the end of the evening, masks are stripped away and the truth seeps out like ink onto the page. Halls reminds us that place has a real sense of sticking with you, no matter how far you might travel to escape it.
It’s hard to pick a favourite story as they’re all worthy of praise but both Modernisation and Coffee stayed in my mind long after the last page. The former centres around a postman who, having grown up on The Quarry, returns to the lane after years spent covering the quieter routes. I sympathised with the idea of modernity slowly eroding memory, replacing it with something new and almost hostile.
“It’s the same place we grew up in,” says an old friend, causing our narrator to wonder what he’s more afraid of (“that I’m right, or he is”) and if the place he vividly remembers might not have been so idyllic. The latter, Coffee, follows a lapsing alcoholic who, suffocating with loneliness, finally plucks up the courage to ask out the barmaid in his local. Despite rooting for things to go in his favour, the evening ends in disastrous consequences, highlighting the difficulty of navigating addiction and isolation.
The characters of this novel inhabit a world of gambling, zero-hour contracts, substance abuse and absent parents. It’s bleak and despairing in parts, for sure, but it’s also poignant, real and, at moments, surprisingly tender, particularly the story Kate where a husband is left reeling in the wake of his wife’s death from bowel cancer.
One of my only criticisms (and it’s minor) is the overwhelming despondency in The Quarry. While Halls does touch on moments of warmth, not a single character leads a life that could be considered happy or even OK. Each character is marred by something – perceived or otherwise – that they are unable to escape, shake or conquer. But perhaps that’s the point and I’m looking at the narrative through privileged eyes? After all, these are people who navigated a decade of austerity and brutal cuts.
I was gripped by The Quarry, enthralled by the interconnecting narratives and the circumstances of each character. If there’s one thing that Halls gets right (and there isn’t just one thing), it’s the fully realised, believable, interesting characters who, despite their deeds (or misdeeds), engender feelings in the reader. It’s not necessarily sympathy (they aren’t always likeable) but more a recognition. An understanding that things should – and could – be different, and a desire to reach into the pages and pull them from their plight.
This is a brilliant debut novel. Bold, well-written and engaging.
By Emma Yates-Badley, Literary Editor
The Quarry is published by Dialogue Books and is available to buy now.