Jane Rosenthal reviews Cham by Jonathan Trigell, a novel written in three strands.
It is no longer fashionable or respectable to head out for “the colonies”, but here is yet another young Brit who has fled his flat, grey and crowded native isle, in this case for the peace and magnificence of the Swiss Alps. Jonathan Trigell lives in Chamonix, and this is the setting for his novel, Cham (Serpent’s Tail). His first novel, Boy A, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize in 2004, and in his second he shows that he may well offer the likes of David Mitchell and Ian McEwan some serious competition.
The oddly named protagonist, Itchy, is a barman in a ski resort with a good view of the magnificent Mont Blanc. He has fled not only the commonly known miseries of Britain, but also an insupportable load of grief and remorse, which he assuages with alcohol, keeping himself pretty much anaesthetised. His other escape from consciousness is skiing or snowboarding. Clearly it would be a mistake to conflate Itchy and the author, but Trigell is able to provide an insider’s view of this corner of Europe, with considerable insight. And ecstatic descriptions of the bliss of the mountains and the sports on them.
Itchy has had one year of university in which he proved himself an able student of the Romantic poets, Byron, Shelley and Keats. It is because of their exile to Chamonix that he too flees there, feeling himself an outcast. Here he is not so much “half in love with easeful death” as he is “half in love with violent exploding death”—Cham has been called “the death sport capital” of the world.
The novel is written in three strands: the present in which Itchy devotes himself to booze, casual sex and powder days (best snow conditions); flashbacks to his year at university, and, lastly, extracts from a book on Byron. In the latter, written in the elegantly phrased style of the 19th century essayist, Trigell confronts issues as current then as they are now: atheism, vice, guilt, love.
However unlikely Itchy may seem as a Byronic hero, the author shows us that they have much in common. He moves from frightening and bleak descriptions, all too recognisable, of tourists in flight from the realities of their home-lives, to the romantic exile of Byron and friends.
Many startling images underpin this examination of the origins of tourism in the era just after the Napoleonic wars. For example, Trigell describes Byron’s carriage in this way: “Perhaps traces of the bloodied soil of Waterloo are even now caked upon the coach’s underbelly, because the travellers had stopped to take in those fields of still recent slaughter. They had galloped across the churned plain where 15 000 fellow Britains had fallen.”
Still pursuing his tragicomic examination of the young Brit abroad, Trigell turns, without so much as a blink, from Byron to James Bond. For it is only Bond who provides Itchy with any sense of national pride, despite the fact the he is a “blatantly misogynistic murderer”. Almost as a subplot to the miseries of Itchy’s existence is the series of rapes that has plagued Chamonix. It is Bond that Itchy invokes when he decides to try to catch the rapist. The reader, however, wonders whether it may not be Itchy himself.
After a deliciously dark trawl through a few months of Itchy’s life the novel winds up on a lighter note, which is not entirely satisfactory. Forgiveness, atonement and a return to normal life are managed too easily. However, this novel is well worth reading.