Book Review: Warwick Collins — Gents

Another one from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme.

This is a short tale in what might seem an unsalubrious setting, but it’s a small gem of a book that’s well worth reading. It was first published in 1997, but went out of print, before being republished in 2007 by The Friday Project. The republication is well deserved.

Gents is the tale of Ezekiel Murphy, a West Indian immigrant, and the job he takes as an attendant in a public lavatory in London. The supervisor, Josiah Reynolds, and the other cleaner, Jason, teach him the job, which includes more than he had expected. As Ez soon discovers, the facility is popular with cottagers — men using the cubicles for fast, anonymous sex with other men. The attendants discourage it as best they can, but tolerate a certain amount of activity, because as Reynolds points out, the ‘reptiles’ are no threat to anyone.

There are still complaints to the council about the goings-on, and the crew are told that they must clamp down on the cottaging or the facility will be shut. Alas, they’re too successful for their own good, and takings from the small cover charge that covers the facility’s running costs drop precipitously, leading to renewed threats of job cuts, and a dilemma for the attendants…

Gents is a gentle, funny and subtle parable about tolerance, on more levels and subjects than the obvious one. The characters and situations are sketched lightly but deftly, in a lovely display of showing rather than telling, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Collins originally conceived the story as a screenplay. The three West Indian attendants have much in common through their common background, but are still very different people with different attitudes and prejudices. They have an outsider’s view of the society they live in, and see it from underneath. Through Ez the book touches on issues of race, class, homophobia, religion and culture, without ever being heavy-handed or one-sided.

There are stunningly good descriptive passages about the men and their world, and the characters are likeable and sympathetic, without being unbelievable saints. The main characters are the three men, but they also all have wives (two in Jason’s case), and Ez’s wife Martha and his relationship with her is a particular strength of the book.

One minor problem for some readers will be the Jamaican patois in the dialogue, which does take a few pages to get used to if you’re not familiar with it. But it’s appropriate for the characters and not pushed to the point where it’s hard to follow.

This is a much shorter read than its 172 pages might suggest, as a large font and plenty of white space mean that there aren’t many words per page. At 25,000 words or so, this is a novella rather than a full-length novel, and you get around an hour’s reading for your eight pounds. But it’s beautifully written and a joy to read. It may be short but there’s plenty of depth, and it will stand up well to re-reading. Even if you feel that the book is too pricy for the word count, it’s well worth checking it out from your library.

ISBN: 9781905548767

LibraryThing entry
Gents at Amazon UK
Gents at Amazon US

Tuesday Thingers

This week’s prompt: “how many books do you have cataloged in your LibraryThing account? How do you decide what to include- everything you have, everything you’ve read- and are there things you leave off?”

Right now I’ve got 907 books catalogued. My default is that if I own it and it’s a book-like object, it gets catalogued. I’ve now catalogued most of the books I currently have physical access to (a lot are in storage), and I usually add books to the catalogue as soon as I acquire them.

“Getting rid of books” was not part of my worldview until recently, but I’m facing up to the fact that I need to be realistic about whether I will read a book again. As I dispose of books, I’m going to leave them in my LT catalogue, but tag them as disposed of (probably with an annotation as to how they were disposed of). If nothing else, I want a record of the fact that I once owned the book and was willing to part with it, so that I don’t accidentally buy another copy.

So far I haven’t added books that I’ve read but never owned. My original reason for getting a LibraryThing account was to have a catalogue of my book collection for insurance purposes, so what I wanted was an accurate record of books that I owned, or had owned but no longer did. And I haven’t read many books that weren’t my personal property in the two years I’ve had a LibraryThing account — something to do with an excellent second-hand bookshop being closer than local library at the time I started the account. But I’ve been writing reviews of the few library books that I have borrowed, and I’d like to post the reviews on LT; plus it would be useful to have those books in my catalogue to feed into the various useful social networking features. So I may start adding “read but not owned” books, suitably tagged. I might have done so already, but I wanted to wait for the long-promised collections feature.

So far I haven’t left off anything, but I did think long and hard about some of the books I’ve bought for writing research. They’re not books I really want to have conversations about with workmates and family… If collections ever happen, they may end up in a private collection.

Index post for the blogring’s responses to this week’s prompt.

Tuesday Thingers

Yes, it’s Wednesday. By the time I got around to checking the master post at our esteemed host Bostonbibliophile, I was too flattened by the day’s distractions to write something sensible. Prompt for the week is:

Discussion groups. Do you belong to any (besides Early Reviewers)? Approximately how many? Are there any in particular that you participate in more avidly? How often do you check?

22 that I’m a member of or have on my watch list, though I’ll dip into others from time to time. The first group I joined, and the only one I was active in for a long time, was Folio Society Devotees. What got me out of there and active on some of the groups about the site itself was an early spam incident. I received a friend request from an author that was clearly purely an attempt at promoting his new book, and I went looking for somewhere to complain about it… I’m moderately active in Early Reviewers, Site Talk, New Features and Recommend Site Improvements — i.e mostly geeking about the site itself.

How often I check depends on how busy I am and whether I’m in any active conversations. I’ve been known to check every ten minutes when I’m desperately trying to avoid work and there’s a fast moving conversation going on. :-) More typically, every day or two for the four I’ve mentioned above. Others I sometimes check only every few weeks. I’d read the Folio Society group more often, but I’m trying to avoid temptation as we’re currently in a small flat and I have been told that I am not allowed to buy any more bookcases, and no, I may not leave the books in a pile on the floor instead.

One of the things I like about the groups is that it’s generally interesting conversation that mostly manages to stay good tempered. I have other places to hang out on the net where I can find that, but it’s always good to have more. Not bad for something I only joined so that I could easily catalogue get my books for insurance purposes.