“Was this how it was going to be for ever?” wonders Joyce Savigear, facing another afternoon of drudgery at EH Lacey’s department store in postwar Maidstone, Kent. Joyce is 16 and at a crossroads. Before her is mysterious Mal Duggan, looking invitingly up from the driving seat of a Daimler; behind her are endless hours of folding womenswear and polishing counters. “How much worse off would she be if she went driving with a stranger for a while?”
In due course, Joyce finds out, and Benjamin Wood’s latest novel, The Young Accomplice, is set in motion by the choice she makes. It is a choice that leads to a period in borstal for her and her younger brother, Charlie, developing into a story of opportunity, education and escaping the past. Like Wood’s previous novel, A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better, it concerns malign or misguided father figures, and the necessity of learning from mistakes.
Set mainly over the second half of 1952, but with brief forays into the years before and after, the narrative follows the siblings after they are released from borstal and taken on as architectural apprentices by Florence and Arthur Mayhood. They live and work together on the Surrey farm where the Mayhoods’ idealistic practice is based: tilling lessons in the morning; draughting classes in the afternoon. A happy time is had for a while, until Mal Duggan reappears.
The Mayhoods and Savigears form a family of outsiders. Arthur, a former borstal boy made good, sees potential in the siblings whose background resembles his own. The farm’s atmosphere is teacherly: “If every person on this earth was born with just two things, they’d never have to struggle. Do you know what those things are? Belief and opportunity.” The obstacles of class, sexuality and geography are well illustrated. Arthur is hampered by his accent and his past; Florence by the condescension of her father and her male colleagues.
The rotten core of the novel is the relationship between Joyce and Mal. Wood convincingly outlines the slowly curdling process of being groomed: Joyce is picked up young, and at first there are ice-creams, day trips and a flat of her own, but then there are indebtedness, impositions, threats and violence. Joyce rationalises it all: “In borstal, she’d returned to the idea that what she had with Mal was special, a relationship too individual for anyone but them to understand.”
Mal is an unnerving presence. All too convincing in his flabby drabness (“Sweaty faced and hairy at the chest and belly”), he is always there, wherever Joyce goes, darkening doorways and haunting hedgerows. He is, at times, a little overdone (“catching mice behind her kitchen skirting boards for sport and braining them with his enormous shoes”) and their final confrontation is a touch laboured (“He snorted inwards like a pig and spat on her. That did it – the humiliation”). Scenes that follow Joyce delivering stolen goods are tense but often secondhand – the criminals unconvincing, the action weightless.
The atmosphere of 1950s Britain is well evoked – all Woodbines and pints of mild – and the complicated relationship between the Mayhoods and the Savigears is nicely developed and affecting, with one especially sharp moment when Arthur looks afresh at the troubled Savigears “as though he’d recognised a basic failure in his sums”. It is a pity, though, that this story of messy human miscalculations should resolve so magically and undeservedly, as it does, in a gilded New York hotel room, in the presence of a saintly Frank Lloyd Wright.
Indeed, Wright’s words provide the preface: “To see a failure changed to a success – there is what I call Education.” As a portrait of youthful mistakes and adult blindness, The Young Accomplice is both tender and cutting; it is often subtle and occasionally thrilling. If, at times, the mechanics of plot carry us away from the more grounded human emotions Wood has cultivated, it is no great matter. Some lessons are just worth hearing.