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Forbidden Line, Paul Stanbridge

By Helena McNish, on 4 May 2017

Longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize 2017

Interested in what I was reading, a friend asked me to summarise this book as simply as I could in one sentence. I struggled with this request. I enjoyed this novel for many reasons; it was difficult to condense everything I wanted to say in one line, and I found myself stupidly answering, “It’s just about two guys who wander around Essex and London.”

Essentially, that is the story. Surrounding this simple summary, the blurb promises the book to a ‘unique retelling’ of Don Quixote and the Peasants’ Revolt. Having never read Don Quixote, I felt some of Forbidden Line’s charm was somewhat lost on me, but there is still plenty held within Stanbridge’s debut novel that kept me entertained. There are meta-sections where it feels the book is mocked (always enjoyable), and instances where the narrator directly addressing the reader (advising us when we might want to skip ahead, or if a character is parting useless words, etc.), all of which injects wry comedy and vibrant energy into the book.

As for two main characters: there is Don, who is clever, but probably too clever for his own good, and Is (Isiah), who is made out to be a fool, but feels as if he is probably smarter than Don (certainly relatable when Don makes grand intellectual speeches). The first 50 pages of the novel, where the characters are getting to know each other, are a particular highlight of the book. What comes forth is a well-constructed adaptation of Blackadder (especially Don and Is’s relationship, which, as noted by others, is reminiscent of the Blackadder/Baldrick dynamic), along with nods to both The Princess Bride and Monty Python.

The story is driven by dialogue and action, with dialogue making up a decent proportion of this novel. However, there are also sections that comprises a book Don is writing, and every so often the reader will be presented with odd encyclopaedia entry where Don writes his thoughts on some subject or another, usually pertaining to the plot. As Don doesn’t believe in time (one of the many things he doesn’t believe in), we end up with frequent paradoxes which play a part of the story itself; while the tone of narration feels as if it takes place in the past, modern day technology is referenced.

Sometimes passages require reading back a few times over to understand what is being said, and a section will entail extra effort by the reader to persevere to reach brilliantly witty moments, but it’s worth it for those moments. Such a moment takes place around the middle of the novel, where Don interprets Wordsworth’s poem ‘Tintern Abbey’ as a prophecy of cyber development, with ‘even the title Wordsworth gives to his poem already and first of all alerts us to what his poem will achieve. ‘Tintern’ plainly and in full view puns on ‘(T)intern[et].’’

Overall, there are a lot of elements pulled together in the construction of this novel, and cleverly done. The prose is well-crafted, the jokes keep the reader going, and it is bursting at the seams with quirky methods of addressing narration. Though sometimes feeling like a surreal history lesson at the expense of plot and character development, this book certainly is a lot of fun to read.

Sara Zo

Forbidden Line is published by Galley Beggar Press