Brighton Rock is not a novel to be lightly read. The weighty story drives on with an inevitable crunch of misfortune and emotion towards magnified tragedy. Graham Greene’s woeful tale set in interwar Brighton is a mixed-bag of detail and density.
No book can be read in isolation of context, and as a fair warning to you, I did delve into this 1930s classic over exam week this January. It provided me with a very grandiose distraction: gangs in Brighton seemed a fair stab of escapism from the long library days. Despite this, I will do my utmost to present an undistorted, spoiler-free review.
The book follows Pinkie, a seventeen-year-old gang leader trying to claim a stake of power in Brighton along with fellow gangsters Dallow, Spicer and Cubitt. Three elements dominate Pinkie’s leadership of the gang: The inquisitive and observant local singer Ida Arnold, who undertakes an investigation into a crime; the potentially dangerous witness and love interest, Rose; and rival gang leader Colleoni. As these factors press in, Pinkie’s decisions and actions become more desperate.
Tension is an art that Greene masters well. He shrouds and unveils plot with a showman flair, leaving the reader to watch the unfolding mess with a unique perspective of Pinkie’s inner-thinking. Through the harsh strains of wrought emotion, I found myself rushing through with expectant impatience and an ‘action-movie car-chase’ thrill.
Pinkie is so complex a character that his rambling thoughts are difficult to take in. There’s a Catcher in the Rye feel to his adolescent angry cynicism. He has “grey inhuman seventeen-year old eyes.” (Part One, 1) which are “touched with the annihilating eternity from which he had come and to which he went.” (Part One, 2). The rich description shows his stuck-up, outsider, heartless demeanour. Pinkie’s approach to romance particularly is uncomfortable reading, with a sadistic inadequacy leading to him being mocked The violent desire for power combined with a teenage candid disgust also creates an interesting paradox with the all-male gang. Dallow’s gentle-giant affection, Spicer’s down-to-earth good nature and Cubitt’s teasing seem out of place in contrast with the unrealistically-gritty outlook of the young protagonist.
In spite of these interesting characterisations, Brighton Rock was an effortful slog in places. Implied meaning and undefined circumstances has fantastic potential in a novel. However, so often here it fell flat and I found myself confused by the story and I had to flick back to obscure encounters in order to find missing information. Not least was the downcast protagonist difficult to absorb, the plucky opposing force, embodied in Ida, was odd. Her caution-to-the-wind manner tends to disagree with her determined drive to find justice. Frankly it felt caricature and conflicted.
Although often the chapters drew me in, the finale definitively drew me out. ‘Oh get on with it’ pretty much sums up my thoughts at the book’s closure. It seems predictable and the throes of obscure religious elements of Pinkie and Rose’s Catholicism repetitively grate. A two-chapter epilogue satisfies some need of closure but I didn’t feel sympathy with the wronged, more a slight relief that it had finished.
Verdict – 5.5/10 – Readable
Brighton Rock was worth a read. I enjoyed discussing it more than reading it if I’m honest, but it serves to capture an era of Britain I’m unfamiliar with. With a lot of intrigue and a little of strangeness, it ambles along to a disappointing finish.