Nat Segnit frames his debut novel as a walking guide by one Graham Underhill, a guide notable for the extent to which its fictional author’s personal life intrudes on the text. In the very first chapter/ramble, we learn how Underhill met his second wife, Sunita Bhattacahrya – fifteen years his junior – at Malvern Library, where he gallantly offered to pay her overdue fines; and so it continues. As the novel progresses, we discover under just how much strain the couple’s marriage was – not that Graham seemed to notice – until eventually Sunita goes missing, and the rambler turns searcher, setting out to look for her.
The voice of Graham Underhill as revealed in his guides is well-meaning but overly earnest and long-winded, with a tendency to digress into a personal anecdote or some less-than-relevant piece of trivia; one soon begins to see why Sunita might have begun to tire of him. Much of the humour in Segnit’s book comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of the rambler’s-guide and novelistic idioms, and Graham’s apparent inability to take a hint; even as early as the second chapter, when Sunita announces, ‘I’ve had enough,’ there’s an undercurrent which suggests she is not just talking about this particular ramble – yet Graham can’t see this or any of the other signs which become increasingly plain to the reader.
Amusing as all this is, it would wear pretty thin over the course of an entire novel if that were all there was to it – particularly as it’s intrinsic to the book’s affect that Graham’s narration tries one’s patience at times – but what carries Pub Walks in Underhill Country home for me is how Segnit uses its very structure as a means of characterisation. Graham’s framing of episodes from his life as walking routes can be seen as his attempt to impose order on the world; this is ‘Underhill country’, after all, and rambling is the fulcrum of his life. As the pages turn by and the life Graham knows falls apart, his insistence on retaining the stylistic conventions he has established – the maps, the trivia, noting the character and strength of every beer he samples along the way – stops feeling like an amusing joke and starts to seem increasingly desperate, the action of a man grasping for any kind of stability. Still, in later chapters, Graham‘s narration becomes more and more straightforwardly novelistic (his control of the world slips); by the end, the distinction between life and pub walk comes to the verge of collapsing altogether, with the result that…
Well, it depends on what kind of man Graham Underhill is. He comes across as a bumbling, rather naive, ultimately rather tragic figure; but then again, our impression of Graham is filtered through both his subjectivity and the structures of the rambling-guide format. There are enough hints peppered throughout that weren’t not seeing everything of the real Underhill, and that a darker interpretation of the novel might be valid. Pub Walks in Underhill Country could have been too one-note and gimmicky, but touches like that ambiguity transform it into something far richer.
Yet Pub Walks is more than a fine read – it’s also an intriguing start to a literary career, because it makes one excited to read whatever Segnit writes next, whilst leaving a sense that he could go in just about any direction. Start reading him now, I’d say.