Jimmy Noone drifted, alone in a cold subway, falling away with the day as it faded to shadow. He dreamt of balloons: sky-blue, bought by his father to mark his third birthday.
So we meet Jimmy who I hesitate to call protagonist of Sharon Duggal’s second novel. Jimmy, who makes play of his surname as No-one, turns into catalyst of events rather than active agent.
Homeless, haunted by a difficult past, Jimmy leaves his regular patch to find a young woman. Betwa, also on the streets, draws him in before vanishing. Her stories of her past awaken his own.
In Betwa’s old area, Shifnal Road, Jimmy finds an old car between two houses, and sleeps there. On one side, a young couple, Grace and Mandy, live together in the ground floor flat, occasionally minding Tuli, 6 year old daughter of upstairs neighbour Ebele. The flats are owned by Nikos, a widowed Cypriot shop owner and Ebele’s employer. On the other side, Rayya cares for her dying husband, Satish, talking to him of events outside and their youth in India.
Duggal tells her story in short chapters focussing on Jimmy, Nikos, Rayya, Tuli and Ebele. Each one has lost someone, or is losing them. Tuli thinks her daddy is dead, because kids at school said so, but Ebele told her just disappeared in the trees. Ebele herself has had bad luck with men, and has become suspicious and closed in. Nikos’ childhood friend died young, Jimmy’s mother too.
Should We Fail Behind is about their loss, but also about their being lost. Duggal doesn’t quite say openly but these characters are less defined by their loss, as they were defined pre-loss by their relationship to the absentee.
It’s through this she draws our sympathy though there is little initially to like about Nikos or Ebele in particular. The latter is scared of Jimmy’s presence though Tuli thinks he’s a character from a book, and calls him storyman. Ebele’s would-be boyfriend, Daban gets involved in Jimmy’s search for Betwa too.
All of these disparate characters find their emotions changed as they engage with the concept of Jimmy. His presence rather than actual interactions seem to stir things up leading to a coming together out with his control.
In her novel Sharon Duggal has managed to show homelessness, mourning, isolation, being a single mother, all as aspects of human invisibility. Nikos knows little of his employee, Ebele nothing of her neighbour, Rayya exists rather than lives. But Should We Fall Behind is not a bleak novel. There is humour in the multicultural voices, Rayya’s one-sided conversation with comatose Satish are poignant not comic relief but made me smile. Nikos jibes at Ebele’s timekeeping and her muttered responses almost become rote.
There is political commentary too, how could such a novel not have. Early on Jimmy shelters beneath a hotel that blasts The Four Seasons out daily. One of his fellow rough sleepers points out how inherently cruel this is, it being the DWP ‘hold’ music. The irony that Vivaldi died in poverty too is not missed.
Betwa, we are reminded, was named by her mother after an Indian river. Her flow has dragged Jimmy on, flotsam until caught up by Nikos’ tenants. He in turn entangles their lives and a foundation is created. For all the essential tragedies behind these people, Sharon Duggal has given them, and us, a momentary hope that love exists.