I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning by Keiran Goddard review – growing up and apart | Fiction

I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning by Keiran Goddard review – growing up and apart | Fiction

Keiran Goddard is a poet and novelist whose debut novel, Hourglass, was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott prize in 2022. His second novel, I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning, is a worthy successor. A multivocal narrative focusing on a working-class community in Birmingham, it follows Rian, Patrick, Shiv, Oli and Conor as they grow up and grow apart. Rian has left Birmingham and got rich, more or less by accident, playing the stock market on his laptop; the other four stayed behind. As Goddard observes in a striking opening sentence, “And then none of it happened.” Life came at them fast, and none of their dreams has come true. Patrick works as a takeaway delivery biker, and has two children with Shiv; Oli is a drug dealer too fond of his own supply; Conor has a chaotic home life, and a plan to make things better.

At the beginning of the novel, these childhood friends get together for a night out, and Conor asks Rian if he can borrow money to embark on a construction project. By the end of the book, they’ve gone through a tragedy that seems to have cut them off definitively from their past.

There’s a subtly radical treatment of narrative here. Rather than kinetic or dynamic storytelling, what Goddard offers as he switches between the voices of his five main characters is a series of tableaux and character studies; internal monologues presenting the latest state of affairs, while the plot goes on seemingly just behind the text, reported to but not exactly witnessed by the reader. At its best, the technique is reminiscent of Jon McGregor’s most successful novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things and Reservoir 13; voices and images succeed one another, accumulating into a composite portrait of people becoming unmoored from youth.

It’s not always entirely satisfying, as the technique dispenses with the pleasure of pure, live storytelling, one thing flowing into another. There’s little vocal differentiation, and so without conventional dramatic scenarios in which the characters can extensively interact, the text sometimes becomes a monochrome reading experience. There is also a slight tension between the book’s close focus on a small friendship group and its occasional gestures towards having something larger to say about Birmingham, or even England.

Goddard’s characters each feel isolated within their own lives, and remain isolated from the wider world when they get together; what the novel studies is a friendship group, not a wider community. Many great writers about work, from Robert Tressell to David Storey and right up to Boiling Point on the BBC last year, have sought to dramatise the hustle and bustle of a workplace; the building site at the heart of Goddard’s novel is only really seen and overheard from a distance.

However, these are caveats that do not obscure the success of a moving and highly successful character portrait. The cliche goes that second novels, like second albums, are tricky to navigate; having had the whole of their lives to get the first ones right, writers sign contracts giving them 18 months or two years in which to repeat the trick. It’s a lazy reading of how artists develop. Whether they succeed or not, second novels are the moment when a new way of seeing the world, announced with the writer’s debut, begins to develop and grow – the single book gives way to the multifaceted career, and the writer’s direction of future travel begins to emerge. This novel left me eager to follow Goddard’s work as he continues to develop.

I See Buildings Fall Like Lightning by Keiran Goddard is published by Abacus (£16.99) in the UK and on 14 May in Australia. To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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