In 2014, the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize worked with the Regional Literature Development Agencies to find reading groups across the UK to read the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning titles.
Lolito by Ben Brooks was read by the Books Actually Book Group from Brighton and below are reviews from its reading group members.
As the title readily suggests, Ben Brooks’ latest novel, Lolito, is a modern reworking (of sorts) of Vladimir Nabakov’s Lolita, although in Brooks’ version the situation has been reversed: while Lolita is the story of an older man who has – or at least tries to have – a relationship with a young girl, Brooks’ version gives us a 15-year-old boy attempting, with some success it must be noted, a relationship with a 46-year-old woman. Towards the end of the book this apparently lonely, middle-aged, single mother is revealed to be not only a teacher (as with the ‘predator’ in Lolita), but a head teacher, someone with an even greater duty of care to her charges, thereby raising yet more questions of morality in an already controversial subject with more than a few grey areas of what is right and wrong. In both books the tale is told from the male perspective, and although the female voice and viewpoint were conspicuous by their near total absence in Lolito, it seems unfair to draw much more comparison between Brooks’ and Nabakov’s books than that, given the respective positions of the male and female characters in each novel.
The whole of Lolito is narrated by the 15-year-old in question, Etgar Allison, a somewhat unstable adolescent with a broken heart and a drinking problem. The action of the book seems to take place over the course of about a week, though it is somewhat unclear if this is actually the case, due to the deliberately confusing and unreliable narrative, with dreams, chat-room conversations, memories and Etgar’s strange poetry woven in to the alcohol-addled main story. Most members of our reading group found the book overall to be a very quick read, finishing it in a matter of hours, but several of us found it a little frustrating, being not completely able to follow the thread of the story. Additionally, although the story itself stuck with us, much of the detail was rather forgettable, such as the chronology of the narrated events and even some of the characters’ names.
Near the beginning of the book, Etgar discovers that his girlfriend of three years, Alice, has cheated on him, hence his broken heart. Unfortunately for both of them, she has been whisked away on an exotic family holiday, and thus they are not able to talk through their relationship issues. Instead, Etgar finds solace in the internet, both in oddball YouTube videos and in online chat-rooms, the latter being where he meets Macy, the aforementioned older woman. They hit it off quickly in the chat-room, and soon move on to private messages, e-mails and video calls, which then leads to Etgar booking an expensive hotel in central London for their face-to-face meeting.
All along, Etgar genuinely thinks that he has managed to fool Macy into believing him to be a 26-year-old mortgage broker, and it is not until they have already spent some time together and consummated their relationship that she reveals she knew all along he was only 15. Given that the story is told by Etgar, who carefully picks and chooses which bits he relates and which he leaves out, it is unsurprising that we as readers fell for his story – many of us in our book group were shocked by Macy’s offhand bombshell to Etgar that she has always known his real age. The unreliable narrative is really highlighted at this point, when you realise that you have taken much of the story at face value, without questioning Etgar’s motives in telling the story. There were strong echoes here of Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and of course Lolita, not just for the storyline but for the famously unreliable narrator.
At this sudden discovery of a head teacher knowingly getting herself sexually involved with a minor, we pretty much unanimously revised our opinion of Macy as a lonely (or bored) single mother in need of some excitement and who was almost as naïve as Etgar. Such a character elicited sympathy and, to a certain extent, feelings of compassion from the reader; however the revelation of her true colours showed us that we had glimpsed only a tiny aspect of her, as seen through Etgar’s eyes, and that in fact her actions were morally reprehensible and completely socially unacceptable too. As was certainly Brooks’ intention, a number of questions were raised about the way Macy behaved: was she manipulating Etgar, or did she really have feelings for him? Was Etgar a victim, although he himself had initiated much of the situation? Could and should Etgar be considered to be a responsible adult at the age of 15, although in legal terms still a minor? How far was Macy intending or expecting their ‘relationship’ to go?
Having reached the end of the book and with still not much detail given about Macy, some members suggested that it would have been interesting to hear the story from Macy’s viewpoint as well, or at least to have had more insight into her character. At one point Etgar notices that she has bruises all over her, and it is apparent that her husband (yes, in fact she is not a single mother at all, but still in a relationship with him) has been beating her. This was somewhat glossed over and we felt that more should have been made of it. At that point the morality pendulum swung back in Macy’s favour again, with the knowledge that she was a victim herself. We found ourselves once more excusing her predatory behaviour, when it transpired that she was suffering domestic abuse.
That said, it was hard to feel genuinely sorry for any of the main characters – we could not easily relate to any of them because they just did not seem to be very likeable people: Etgar’s generally uncaring attitudes to other people, the neglectful treatment of his dog, and his constant drinking and drug-taking; Alice, whose mother died of breast cancer when Alice was only 12, did not seem to have been particularly affected by such a trauma, and had already had 2 abortions by the time she was 14, which was shrugged off as something normal; Macy, although a victim of domestic violence, still ‘grooms’ Etgar and leads him on, encouraging him with the hotel in London, and later pretending to be his mother when the two of them go to have tattoos done. In the case of the teenagers in particular, it could certainly be said that they are simply products of their time, having grown up in a world of readily accessible pornography and constant bombardment on all sides from various forms of media, but they both came from loving families and had a wide circle of friends, so it did not seem that all of their behaviour could be excused for that reason.
Perhaps this book was not really aimed at women in their 30s and 40s, as most of our reading group are, though it is hard to pinpoint exactly who the target audience is – the portrayal of a troubled 15-year-old boy was generally extremely well done (though there were, we felt, some minor inconsistencies), but it seemed that the book was not aimed at teenagers either. Perhaps that is its appeal, that everyone can get something out of it, regardless of their own background. As a social commentary it is extremely astute, from the pervasive influence of the internet on today’s youth to the moral dilemma posed by an adolescent merely months away from the age of consent having a ‘relationship’ with an adult.
The overall feeling amongst the book group was that we were glad to have read it for the issues and discussions it raised, and some of us would certainly like to read it again with the knowledge of Macy’s situation already taken in, to see if our opinion of her character changes, but that we felt too disconnected from the characters to really engage with them. Hats off to Brooks, however, for having written such an emotionally rousing book and which generated so much discussion amongst our members!
Read more about our reading group projects here.