Brock, Pike & Rook and Lark by Anthony McGowan some thoughts and a review

It is grim up North – at least that is what they tell us! Peopled with cloth-hatted whippet fanciers that probably have ferrets down their trousers that mumble things like “Ee bah gum!” and suchlike! The problems with stereotypes is that they obscure the truth, and for people that do not venture out of their comfort zones then stereotypes is all they have to go on! This is just one reason why reading is so important – it gives us windows into parts of the world that we may not experience!

There appears to have been a dearth of novels about the North and working class lads since the late, great Barry Hines’ seminal work A Kestrel for a Knave was published in 1968.

Into this breach has stepped Anthony McGowan, I will not deny that I am a fan of his works, he is a great wordsmith and one that is too often pigeon-holed as a writer of lavatory humour, yes his works often contain laughs of the scatological variety but to pigeonhole on his works as solely of that style is to do him a grave disservice!

His Kenny & Nicky trilogy: Brock, Pike and Rook are three wonderful, brief books that take you into the lives of two poor, single-parent boys that live in Yorkshire. Their lives appear grim but the brotherly bond between Nicky and his older, special needs brother is crafted as a thing of beauty. The boys are the main characters and the supporting cast, particularly their father, portrayed, initially as an unemployed, recovering alcoholic facing a potential jail sentence are wonderfully realised, and the three of them grow and develop through course the books.

In Brock, the brothers have to contend with a gang of bullies that involve Kenny in badger baiting, the story is, as are the others, narrated by Nicky who has to balance keeping his brother safe, with avoiding the police and keeping his father in the dark as to what is happening around him.

Pike continues the tale of the brothers, this time catching the glimpse of a flash of gold in the local pond, inhabited, or so the legend goes, by a monster pike that is large enough to pull down a human. This time the stakes are higher, involving the disappearance of a local hard man and his son stepping up and making the lives of Nicky and Kenny a misery.

Rook, the third tale is more personal in nature; Nicky falls in love with a girl in his class; the sister of the school bully. The feelings of confusion engendered within Nicky threaten his relationship with his beloved brother and risk fracturing his family. The stresses in all their lives are focused around an injured Rook rescued by Kenny.

Thinking further upon these novels, I realised that they are based on the elements: Earth for Brock, Water for Pike and Air for Rook, the symbolism of this only became clear a short time ago. We are introduced to Nicky and Kenny, their family is fractured and dirt-poor, living in squalor in Brock then moving on to Pike with the family fortunes gradually improve – with Water as a symbol for them being washed clean and finally with Rook Nicky is ready to fly in the Air filled with hope and love.

If there is a fourth book to come I hope that it will have something to do with the brothers travelling beyond the bounds of their village life to visit their mother (Fire transporting them) but that is pure supposition on my part as Anthony has not commented one way or another as to whether there will be another. Edited to add: this was a terrible idea! The countryside is as much a part of the story as Nicky, Kenny and the wild animals they save!

This trilogy is truly glorious! All three books are published by Barrington-Stoke and are available now!

Lark: a postscript

I  freely admit that Brock, Pike and Rook are three of my favourite books ever! When I finished Rook I had a yearning for a follow up, at the time Anthony was coy about it when I pestered him, and to be fair if those three were the only books about Nicky and Kenny I would have been satisfied. Fortunately I did not have too long to wait!

Lark is the fourth book in Anthony McGowan’s The Truth of Things sequence and is the capstone on a literary masterpiece.

Over the course of four books Anthony has performed alchemy, transforming base matter, in this case the lives of two dirt-poor working class boys that most people would have glanced at and then hurriedly looked away and converted them into gold! Literally in that Lark was awarded the 2020 CILIP Carnegie Medal and metaphorically that their story, one of struggle, love, overcoming almost impossible odds and staying and growing stronger together.

Previously the boys have faced danger in the form of bullies and the cruelty people that should know better, they overcame these hurdles together with their family and friends. In Lark Nicky and Kenny face a danger that cannot be easily be overcome as the previously benign and beautiful moors turn deadly with the onset of an ice storm! Lost and improperly attired the boys and their dog face death by hypothermia unless they can find their way back home.

The final book as powerful (if not more so) as the three preceding titles, but is also different in ways that are not always apparent until you have turned the final page.

Rodgers and Hammerstein perfectly encapsulate their story with one of their most famous songs:

At the end of a storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on, walk on
With hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone

You’ll never walk alone

Kenny and Nicky will walk on together within my thoughts for a long time – maybe until my dying day. This is the power of great literature, to create people so real they live on within you beyond the final pages of their story.

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