The Spider Truces is one of those wonderful novels that captures within its pages something of the essence of live as lived. It’s the story of Ellis O’Rourke, who grows up in rural Kent in the 1980s, living with his older sister Chrissie, father Denny, and great-aunt Mafi. Ellis doesn’t remember his late mother, but Denny doesn’t want to talk about her. Connolly follows Ellis through his teens and beyond, with a keen eye for the rhythms of family life and growing up.
For one thing, Connolly’s characterisation is superb. Here, for instance, is Chrissie feeling the urge to rebel after her mother’s death:
…a defiance in a girl with no previous inclination to defy, an instinct to push blindly towards whatever the new boundaries might be. The tools with which she pushed were not unique to her. Cigarettes and attitude. Harmless boys and dangerous girlfriends. Things that did not truly interest her but appeared to be what she ought to show interest in, because the previous things were those of a girl’s life, and she couldn’t pretend to herself that she was a girl any more. (22)
And here, in a couple of short sentences, is an insightful observation of the young Ellis when a local farmer suggests to Denny that the boy visit: ‘Nevertheless, [Ellis] wanted to go to the farm. He wanted it so much he was willing to say so.’ (78)
The Spider Truces rings true on a structural level, too; the movement from scene to scene sometimes feels oblique or elliptical, so that, although the telling is mostly linear, it can seem not to be – which, I think, is how life often feels. There’s a particularly striking moment when Ellis decides to leave home; his decision isn’t much foreshadowed – it just happens. And yet, this doesn’t feel awkward, but natural, because it grows out of what has already occurred; and there’s a sense that, in the circumstances, even such a life-changing decision might be made rather abruptly.
Tom Connolly’s first novel is simply a great portrait of life. An interview with the author at the back of the book reveals that he is working on two more novels; I very much look forward to reading them.