I had two bites at Joseph O’Connor’s novel, hearing the first half on audiobook during a holiday then reading the paperback after finding a copy in Oxfam. As a result it was Ciarán Hinds’ restrained, confiding brogue that rose to me from the printed word, even when it was a woman speaking. For once my imagination, normally insistent on playing every part, did not complain. Being read to well is a pleasure, even when the voice is inside one’s head.
The Thrill Of It All relates the slow ascent and rapid break-up of a pop group or rock band (the distinction a matter of opinion, a marker of allegiance and taste). It is mainly Robbie’s story, although the others also have their say. The least talented of the four (and nothing without them) he is somehow key to their success: peacemaker, ballast to larger egos, harmonic counterweight, rhythm-navvy: a sort of Ringo without the drums. His friendship with Fran, a Vietnamese-born outcast from foster care, lies at the heart of the book and the band. Fran is a genius and, in time, a monster, his demons (displacement, abuse) projected and magnified. There are echoes here of Lennon and McCartney, the one bitter and edgy, the other safer in every sense of the word. The group is completed by a sister and brother with more technical ability and perspective on the business. In less resourceful hands they would have made up the numbers, nothing more; but, viewing the book as an album, Trez and Seán get a few tracks of their own. The chemistry between the four of them feels authentic, bearing in mind that we readers are a tough crowd, being experts in rock psychology from following our own favourite outfits as they fight, make up, splinter and reform. There is a script to be followed, certain niceties to observe, and O’Connor has done his homework – on this and much else besides. In getting it right he seems to be telling the story of all groups and that part of our own lives as well.
Tellingly, it is the pre-fame sections of the book which work best. Robbie and Fran meet and grow up in Luton, depicted as a drab, small-minded town notable chiefly for not being London. But they transform it through their adventures into a mythical landscape of suburban kitchens, grotty pubs, windy busking pitches and college corridors. Anyone who fled where they grew up but feels rooted all the same will recognise this sequence of get-me-out-of-here and take-me-back. This is their Hamburg phase, full of scallywag energy and irrational hope: having the dream, as many have found, is sweeter than living it. And in many ways the stand-out creation of the novel comes from this period in the person of Robbie’s dad. Jimmy is a shoe-in for Best Supporting Role, not only in his own right but on behalf of the Irish diaspora in England, doggedly tribal, modestly self-made. I laughed out loud when hearing his words spoken and did so again when reading them for myself. In fact, just thinking about him calling his son ‘Bridget’ makes my windpipe convulse.
The band’s brief spell in the limelight is harder to make original and therefore less gripping. Details of stadiums played, studio sessions with celebrity producers, the obligatory musical differences – for the first time one thinks: I’ve heard this before. And despite covering the longest period chronologically, the years after they split are skated over – necessary to prevent the book overrunning but lopsided, nonetheless. That said, there is some A-list name dropping and no let-up in the flow of musical opinions to agree with or shout down – the very essence of fandom. None of which is a plot spoiler, by the way. Because it leaves unanswered the question that arises regarding all ex-groups from the Beatles onwards: will they get back together? To know that you will have to read the book. Or submit to being spellbound by Mr Hinds.