Alison, by Andrew Humphrey

Reviewed by Jim Steel

The way we live now. We have our friends. We've known them long enough to know that they've got flaws, but they're the only friends we've got. We try not to repeat our mistakes and hope to avoid making new ones. It's the way we've always lived.

Andrew Humphrey’s first novel starts with the death of Alison. She is the love of the narrator’s life. Chris gets on with his life as best he can while hoping for answers. Was it suicide? He still has two remaining friends who try to help him as best they can. There is Spike, a live-for-today small-time drug dealer, and there is Emma, who was Alison’s ex-flatmate and Chris’s ex-girlfriend. And, of course, there are families. And then there is the question of how well we can ever really know or trust another person. Everyone marches to their own beat.

There are two narratives in this novel, both of which twist around each other like strands of DNA. One can only begin to imagine how many drafts this novel went through to achieve the fine balance that is evident on every page. There is the strand that begins with the funeral, and it continues while alternating chapters with the story of Chris’s relationship with Alison that started when he met her five years earlier. Alison’s hellish family had plans for her, and they were not best pleased when Chris showed up. Her mother sits at the head of a shadowy organisation that seems to have interests in security and pornography, and Alison’s siblings are equally strange. Has Alison managed to escape the clutches of her own family undamaged? Her sister is a flake and her brother is a brute. In the first chapter, Chris remembers her trying to get him to kill a spider. It’s a minor thing, of little consequence, but it is symbolic of the fact that she may not be perfect. Chris is an only child, but his parents have their own problems: his father is dying of Alzheimer’s. There is no such thing as a normal family.

This is a very fast read, and Humphrey’s skill as a short story writer (he has had two collections published already) may be responsible for this. It’s a slim book but it contains fifty-one chapters, each one only a few pages long. Reading it is like sitting next to an open chocolate box. To Humphrey’s credit, both strands are equally fascinating and there is never any regret at having to leave one to go back to the other. Chris’s narrative voice is a very powerful tool, and we learn more about his guarded character than he might wish to reveal. Alison is not perfect (the plot strand that deals with Spike, for example, is tied up just a bit too tritely) but there is not all that much wrong with it. The dark euphoria of the climax is quite wonderful and a fine pay-off for the reader.

Very highly recommended.

Alison by Andrew Humphrey. Available from TTA Press as trade paperback or limited edition hardback, 174pp, £9.99/£19.99UK. For other countries check website:

This review was originally published on 7 April 2008, on Whispers of Wickedness. Reproduced here with permission.