Jonathan Gibbs’s brilliant 2014 debut novel, Randall or The Painted Grape, plunged us into the gauche, shock-and-awe world of the Young British Artist movement. In place of Damien Hirst, Gibbs gave us Randall, the fictional doyen of the scene, a gifted wide boy awash with cash and acolytes. The familiar question – art or scam, or both? – was explored with originality and wit.
Beneath the cackle and the swagger, though, Randall was also a graceful, forgiving analysis of human relationships: how, through time and circumstance, they bend and warp and sometimes break and sometimes snap back.
Gibbs, his second novel confirms, is a Young Master himself. The Large Door is if anything even better than its predecessor. This time, the setting is academia, with Jenny Thursley, a troubled, fortysomething linguistics lecturer, returning from the US to Europe for a conference dedicated to the work of her ailing, one-time mentor.
The author has an outsize talent for observation and simile,
Linguistics is a perfectly chosen backdrop for what is, again, a study of relationships and connections. Jenny, it emerges, upped and fled to the States from her former life – the mentor, her colleagues, her girlfriend – and must now, somehow, reconnect with all of them over the course of a few days.
The author has an outsize talent for observation and simile, at one moment giving the reader a captivating view of the room in the round, the next zooming in to a practically cellular level. A piano has “nicotined teeth”. An overheard group of Dutch people emit “a grim, expectorating sound… this voice… seemed to turn the mouth and throat into a militarised zone”.
Speaking, touching, looking, moving, texting, hiding: these form Gibbs’s toolkit as he examines the ways in which we communicate – and avoid communicating – with one another. Jenny watches her ex-lover deliver a speech: “Frankie had been 10 years older than Jenny when they had first met, and Jenny supposed she still was; although a year, and a decade, carry a different charge and weight as you age. Jenny was now adrift from 40, turning hopelessly in the current, while Frankie seemed to carry 53 like a mark of distinction.”