Bantam, £10.00, ISBN 978-0-593-06014-8
I’m more familiar with Matt Beaumont’s brand of sarcastic humor so Small World catches me by surprise because it is so… dark, for the want of a better word. This story has more than its share of funny jokes, but they more often than not elicit awkward laughter from me – that is, the kind of laugh that is often accompanied by some burning sensation of shame because you know you really shouldn’t find such things funny.
The format of the book follows first person point of view jump from characters to characters similar to that in the author’s previous book The Book, the Film, the T-shirt. The concept is this: the characters in the story will actually connect to each other in one way or another. It’s a small world, after all, hence the title of this book.
The main characters are three married couples. Karen and Marco Lister is pretty much married in name only. After the whirlwind courtship and honeymoon was over a long time ago, Karen realized that Marco was and still is a bum who lives in his own dream world, thus she channels all her energy, time, and frustrations into her public relations job in a company well-known for its glass ceiling and for having only two female associates in its long history. Some women clearly don’t like making their lives easy, I tell you. Then there are Paul and Ali Heath. Both are writers whose marriage is slowly being torn apart by repeated failures in having a baby. Ali also has temper issues while Paul is willing to bear her abuse because he loves her. She perceives that as a weakness on his part during her worst moments. She fears that one day she will push him too far – and you and I know it has to happen some time in this story – but she can’t help herself. Finally, Siobhan and Dominic Gethen have perhaps the most functional marriage of the three, although Dom is a complete ass who deliberately says the most inflammatory things to get the people around him riled up in the worst possible manner.
There are various secondary characters with their roles to play here, the chief ones being Marcia, a kind and dedicated nurse whose son Carlton becomes the constant target of racist cops just because he’s a big-sized guy with dreadlocks, Michelle, Ali’s store assistant who starts a budding relationship with Carlton, and a racist cop Keith who is dating (and treating terribly) Karen’s sister Pam.
Apart from Marcia, Carlton, Michelle, and Jax the aspiring comedian, I find it hard to call the other characters likable because, goodness, these are one bunch of unhappy and unpleasant people indeed. Karen is so uptight and bitchy, Ali needs therapy, Dom is a bully, Paul is a doormat, Marco should be put down because he’s a complete waste of oxygen, Keith is just horrible, and Pam is pathetic.
Small World uses these characters to expose the really unpleasant ways that people would treat other people like complete crap even if sometimes these people don’t mean to come off in that way. But that is actually this book’s greatest strength. Mr Beaumont uses humor to soften the blow, but reading this book has me cringing and laughing uncomfortably so often because I hate recognizing these unpleasant aspects of humanity in my very own self. This book is a funny read, but it’s also a sobering, even humbling, read as well.
There is a happy ending, of course, or at least as happy as the principal characters can be when they have to pick up the pieces of their lives after they’ve botched things up spectacularly. Some principal characters, the likable ones, get a more unambiguous happy ending, which is nice, while those more morally ambiguous ones get their act together at the very least. Mr Beaumont can be so much like the late Olivia Goldsmith that way: he may expose the worst sides of self-absorbed and selfish people but he’s going for a somewhat happy ending no matter what.
What makes me really like this book is that even when some of the characters are at their lowest, I can still relate to them and what make them behave the way they do. I feel for Karen, I really do, because ultimately, she loves her kid and she just doesn’t understand how she cannot get to her husband no matter how hard she tries to. Karen is selfish, yes, but at the same time, I can also see why she is driven to extremes since she’s essentially the breadwinner, single mother, and career woman in a marriage where the husband is a complete dead weight whom she can’t even talk to anymore. As for Ali, she is an outright shrew at times, but at the same time, I can understand how she is driven to the brink by repeated failures to conceive. The relationship between Ali and Paul is the perfect example of how a supposedly happy marriage can crack when all those little annoyances – such as Paul’s snoring that drives Ali crazy every night – add up slowly until one day Ali wakes up and realizes that she has come to hate Paul as much as she loves him. Ultimately, Karen finds a happy ending of sorts when she finally gets her life together while Ali’s more bittersweet happy ending sees her healing slowly for the better. I’m surprised to feel a lump in my throat when I say goodbye to the crazy bitches Ali and Karen when earlier on I could have happily throttled them with my bare hands. How did that happen?
Small World is darkly humorous rather than laugh-out-loud funny, with many aspects of the story that may get readers squirming in the seat in discomfort as they see some of the less pleasant aspects of themselves mirrored in the characters’ actions. But that’s why I love this book – it makes me feel, think, and hurt even as I laugh.