Sunday, 2 February 2014

REVIEW: 'Starter for Ten' by David Nicholls

Having adored David Nicholl's One Day since I first read it a few years ago, I recently decided it was time to try his other novels to see what I made of them. I'd bought Starter for Ten and The Understudy in a charity shop at the beginning of my Master's degree, knowing I wouldn't be able to read them until I was free. For a whole year they sat temptingly on my shelves, watching as I read course book after course book. The moment I completed my course in September, I started enjoying reading for pleasure again and finally got round to starting Nicholls's Starter for Ten.

Look at my battered and very-much-loved copy. You can tell I enjoyed reading it, can't you?

Starter for Ten is actually Nicholls's first novel, having been published in 2003, so I expected his style to be a little less polished and a little more raw than One Day, which incidentally is his last text, published in 2009. Prior to reading the book, I had no idea what it was about and wasn't quite sure what to expect. I had only heard a number of vague opinions from friends and family - my mum had started to read it but never felt compelled to get further than the first few lines. This probably made it more determined to enjoy it!

Starter for Ten follows the unfortunate and awkward Brian Jackson as he moves away from home and starts university in the 1980s. Brian mourns the loss of his dad, adjusts to new-found independence, falls unwittingly in love with the busty blonde across the dance floor, and eventually finds himself in a downward spiral of lies, cheating, and rejection. The main bulk of the story is written around his overall endeavour to get onto the University Challenge team, which explains the name of the book - and this is what gives it it's originality. After all, for many people (especially in the eighties) teams on University Challenge represented student life - and this book gives us an insight into the life of just one. 

I doubt, however, most University Challenge contestants have such a dramatic experience during their studies!

There is a very authentic feel about it. Nicholls has captured the era perfectly through his great attention to detail (or as perfectly as I can imagine the eighties, since I am a nineties baby!). You can tell instantly that it draws extensively on Nicholl's own heady university experiences, as he confirms in an interview with the Guardian in 2006:

"Unless you're writing in the serial killer genre, it's a safe bet that first novels will have a strong autobiographical element, and while some of the more extreme social faux pas are mercifully fictional, I should confess now that both book and film are a fairly accurate account of my feelings and behaviour at that time."

This is obviously what gives the book its incredibly realistic feel - I was instantly swallowed whole by a world in which Kate Bush was queen and Bamber Gascgoin was an icon. It is this believable element which emphasised my own feelings towards Brian, as if I was slowly watching a friend spiral downwards without any control, and being unable to lend him a shoulder to cry on, or a friendly piece of advice.

Don't get me wrong; it's not as though Brian Jackson turns into a drug-addled raving nymphomaniac, corrupted by debauched students, peer pressure and an alcoholic society. Brian is a 'nice guy' easily influenced by those around him, and intent with impressing fellow students and his mum. His downfalls are genuine, realistic and have probably affected the majority of us at some point in our lives. Brian experiences issues which other students may face; troubles with love, keeping up with studies and keeping friends and family back at home happy while adjusting to a new life. You can see why he starts to drown under all of this pressure. As you read, you watch him slowly digging himself a deeper hole, and you wait for it all to culminate in one big disastrous event; which, unfortunately for Brian, is witnessed by far more people than just his nearest and dearest.

I won't ruin the plot for you at all. I highly recommend reading this novel, regardless of whether or not you've read any of his other books. As I've said, the mistakes you watch Brian make are plausible and realistic...and this is what makes the book so gripping and ultimately so...cringe-worthy.

I found myself frequently holding my head in my hands as I read whilst simultaneously suppressing a giggle. Nicholls really has a knack for dark comedy - you can't help but laugh at Brian, whilst also feeling immense guilt, frustration and anxiety. I personally love Nicholls's style. The book is well written and gripping - I found it hard to put down, which says a lot about a book. As a recent University graduate too, I really identified with how the pressures of student life grip Brian in their clutches.

This is a book with funny and embarrassing moments, and despite some of this review making it seem like a heavy, depressing book, it really is enjoyable. My main thoughts when reflecting on the novel are how sorry I felt for Brian throughout the book. He's a likeable character, but is just unfortunate. It's not always his fault...but quite frequently, he really is his own worst enemy.

If you haven't got the time to read the book, I really recommend watching the film instead, which was released in 2006.  I'm always dubious about film adaptations, but this one was pretty close to the plot of the book, albeit with minor changes. I really enjoyed it (though felt James Macavoy needed a few more pimples to really evoke that 'Brian-esque' image) and Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, he's in it too!) was superb. I was laughing and cringing all over again, despite knowing the plot very well. If you're short of time, not a fan of reading, or just fancy a good film to watch at the weekend, this is perfect.

As someone who also watches University Challenge (I think I may actually be an 80 year-old in a 23 year-old's body) I appreciate its centrality to the story and the humour revolving around it. Let's just say the thought of a contestant appearing on the programme with a black eye or in a ballgown would really make the show for me!

Overall, I highly recommendStarter for Ten (and the film, of course). Don't just assume David Nicholls's One Day is all he has to offer. His earlier work is slightly less polished but is all the more riveting for it.

Have you read this book, or any of Nicholls's other books? Let me know what you thought!


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