Frank's Reviews > Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky by Patrick Hamilton
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Oct 17, 2010

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Read from October 13 to 17, 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a modest hit in the bookshops recently. I’d suggest that for the real horror version of Jane Austen, readers had better turn to Patrick Hamilton. He doesn’t need actual zombies to produces this. Merely putting his characters’ hopes and longings through the grinder of reality is enough to end up with love triangles that read like Austen gone wrong. This is what he does this trilogy, and in his even better Slaves of Solitude.

I think of Hamilton as a kind of prewar, British (and admittedly a lesser) Richard Yates. He shares that American author’s unflinching unsentimentality in his portrayal of the disillusioned life.

I’d give this book 3 stars, but being a ‘forgotten classic’ it needs a leg-up. It’s easy to see why it was forgotten: it can’t rival the real classics of its age. The writing certainly isn’t beautiful throughout, and the book has its longueurs. You feel that it might have conveyed what it had to say in half the number of pages.

Also I don’t entirely agree with Michael Holroyd’s 1984 introduction, in which he writes:

The fact that this should not depress the reader is a tribute to the power of Patrick Hamilton’s storytelling and the exhilaration of his humour. In the earlier pages there are signs of immaturity – some passages of overdeliberation, moments of facetiousness, and an anxious reliance on what J.B. Priestley called Komic Kapitals. But as the book progresses, wonderfully comic scenes proliferate.

It’s true that there’s humour, but there’s more clumsiness than Holroyd allows. The Komic Kapitals, for instance, are overused throughout, especially also in the last part of the trilogy. And when Hamilton gets introspective, he quickly turns ponderous, not to say pompous. The final paragraph of the first part of the trilogy, The Midnight Bell, is specially cringe-inducing.
And really, I do find Hamilton’s stories quite depressing. (Another respect in which he resembles Richard Yates, a truly depressing writer, in my view.)

But the glum world view is the point, and the clumsiness is only occasional. Hamilton writes some terrific scenes, and his portrayal of misdirected passions is very convincing, especially in the first and last parts of the trilogy. The middle part feels a little more perfunctory and features a shallower protagonist; but even this short novel contains enough striking descriptions & acute insights to keep up your interest.
To me, the glory of the lot is the last part of the trilogy, The Plains of Cement, a harrowing account of the doomed courtship of a ‘plain girl’. It foreshadows his Slaves of Solitude, a novel I thought even more accomplished.

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