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Sunday, 16 August 2009
by Mark Illis
Bookersatz readers will have heard of the Just One Book campaign devised by independent publishers Salt to save them from financial meltdown. Salt publish mostly poetry and short stories. I read both, but have quite a bit of each on my To Be Read pile and find I get through novels more quickly. So for my Just One Book, I chose one of the few novels published by Salt.
I was surprised to find that Tender is a short book. I haven’t actually counted the words – even I am not obsessive enough for that – but I would guess the total is around 50,000. And yet it’s a family saga, covering 30 years in the life of the Dax family: Ali and Bill, and their children Sean and Rosa. I wouldn’t have believed it possible to fit a saga into such a short book without leaving the reader feeling short-changed, until I read Tender.
The structure is unusual. Each chapter is from a different viewpoint, almost like a self-contained short story – but not quite. The characterisation is excellent, and I very much enjoyed the strength of Illis’s observational powers. The plotting is gentle, with no enormous drama or cliff-hanger endings. The book tells the story of an ordinary family, yet Illis draws out their uniqueness in such a way that the narrative is compelling. I read the book in a single sitting because the development of the characters, and the relationships between them, drew me along. Illis moves smoothly between dialogue, description and internal monologue, and between close-up, mid-range view and full zoom. He is a very skilful writer and I found Tender a pleasure to read.
The production of the book is also pleasing. The cover seems a little flimsy, but the paper used for the printed pages is a good weight, the text is large and well laid out, and I didn’t spot a single typo which is unusual for this ex-professional proof-reader (see ‘obsessive’, above).
So, if you want to support Salt Publishing, but don’t fancy poetry or short stories, I would strongly recommend buying Tender.
Reviewed by Queenie