[An edited version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, May 2013.]
Two books on from the commercial success of his first, “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen,” Paul Torday has, with “The Girl on the Landing,” written a more conventional tale about a man who experiences a new mental and emotional freedom, but those around him fear the dark side of these changes.
Released from the sense-numbing haze of psychotropic prescription drugs, conservative, predictable Michael becomes “Mikey” (as his wife starts to call him) – a more caring and passionate husband, though his apparently dangerous form of schizophrenia also comes to the surface.
Going back to his boyhood home in the Scottish highlands, as he often does, the new and more volatile Mikey wants to re-visit some of the important people from his past. He is encouraged by his own solitary exploits as a boy in the forests and by the girl in the title (his latest “imaginary friend”) to “follow his nature” and use all his instinctive skills to avoid going back on the restrictive drugs that crushed his spirit for so many years.This sets the scene for the climax to the story and, without giving anything away to anyone who has not yet read the book, Mikey is ultimately forced to struggle with his more extreme urges and impulses.
Another character who also has to often battle against himself is Professor Michael Beard, the main protagonist in Ian McEwan’s “Solar.” Despite being a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Beard usually submits to his compulsions, whether they are for excess food, casual sex or the thrill of an ego-boost from a colleague.
The Professor has made a career living off his former glories as a young physicist but he is still motivated by a desire to create a new piece of technology that will ensure that his name is held in the same regard as Einstein or Hawking. The rub is that he wants to do it the easy way, and that means dishonestly. His self-obsession and self-deception regularly gets in the way and when his fifth wife rejects him, eventually his many flaws come back to haunt him.
McEwan is clearly one of Britain’s best living wordsmiths and the humour and pathos of this book is up there with the best of them. His eye for the little vanities and frailties that make us human is exceptional and his other work is a strong candidate for inclusion in the book list for ECC Advanced readers next year.