Radio Joan by Kevin Davey

Reviewed by Nicolas Hayes


“Navigating the waves”

Radio Joan focuses on an unnamed researcher as he visits a resident in a care home, Joan Cade, to find out about her links to Mosley, the Blackshirts and the wartime broadcasts of Lord Haw Haw from Berlin. It’s thematically rich, stylistically innovative and the book it reminds me of most is a classic: it’s, perhaps surprisingly, the flawed work of American genius Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

Fortunately Radio Joan comes in at a fraction of Moby Dick’s length, but I kept thinking of the white whale, even when I was being shuttled between the 1930s and the contemporary care home. By way of not inconsiderable praise, I was absorbed by the idea that I was in the presence of a substantial intelligence. Melville and Davey both seem to be able to handle material that is bemusingly complex, even though it seems simple. Both protagonists seek their apparently straightforward goal — a news story or a white whale — but the journey is not a direct one. There is much to tell by both authors; for many, one might feel there is perhaps too much to process here. As Ahab ultimately falls beneath the waves, I too felt a little out of my depth with Davey.

The two novels juxtapose fictional elements and factual asides. They tell stories, then are diverted by, respectively, telling the reader about the facts of whaling or the technical side of radios. This encyclopaedic impulse might well amuse and delight some readers, but for me, I struggled to keep my nerve — I was looking out to sea to land my harpoon, or locate the next meeting of the local fascists. Nonetheless, this is a writer with the skills to do justice to all sorts of prose, so why should he compromise to a restless reader? Just be prepared to read as much about radios as riots: ultimately Davey does both with great aplomb.

I had the impression the two novels are reluctant to tell their tales. In the case of Ahab, once his hunt is over, then what does he have left to define him? Once Joan has told her story, then what keeps her from slipping quietly away? The two difficult protagonists are sustained by their problematic stories and complicated emotions. In simple terms, it’s the journey that is the thing for this novel. The destination is not the point, but what points are taken in along the way.

Fluidity

“There is a decent splashing of the sea, of course, in both texts”

Both of the texts use structure to reflect their cause. The challenging fluidity of Radio Joan is inevitable for a book about radio broadcasts. A book about memory, truth and language over the airwaves would have been betrayed by a conventional structure. The subject needed something looser and more experimental; think of the text as something like a collection of snapshots, overheard musings, dislocated recordings. It can’t have the solidity and muscularity of an everyday novel. In contrast, it was, almost literally, the weight that was wanted by Melville. He told a classic 19th-century tale to end all others. He brought the great American novel into the world. In both cases, form and structure reflect intent and theme.

There is a decent splashing of the sea, of course, in both texts. Whitstable features in Radio Joan, alongside plenty of other pleasing local colour. One basic pleasure is in picking out the names and places.

For this reader, I found the modernist aesthetic a little alienating to sustain my engagement. There is no doubting the brilliance of the writing or the relevance of the subject matter. How more relevant could a text be than probing ideas about cancel culture and censorship? At one point the residents try to stop the recordings taking place. The facts behind the rise of the fascists in Britain is also a compelling and important story.

Is Davey’s project enhanced or obscured by his Radio Ga Ga aesthetic? This reader found a little too much static offputting. As with Melville, these challenging texts are great markers of intellect, and there is treasure and rewards in both — but be prepared to have to hunt them down. In a time of lockdown, perhaps this sort of cryptic fiction is exactly the sort of antidote to the wham-bam of TikTok, whether you commit to the marathon of Moby Dick or the literary conundrums of the beguiling Radio Joan.


Blurb

Ninety-year-old Joan Cade lives in a care home by the sea, with three radios for company. She is a former lover of Lord Haw Haw, Hitler’s wartime broadcaster to Britain, and a one-time aide to Oswald Mosley, Britain’s fascist leader. She’s questioned, on the record. But can her memories be trusted?

Making use of extensive research – including recordings of interviews with former-Blackshirt women conducted in the 1980s – Radio Joan is a gripping novel whose themes are chillingly resonant in contemporary politics.

WHAT THEY SAY

‘In Radio Joan, Davey continues his exuberant exploration of prose fiction’s outer limits… Davey’s prose is dense, allusive, richly textured and peppered with highbrow wit and lowbrow puns, well-judged period detail and multiple nods to half-forgotten radio shows. For the reader, the effect is like turning the dial on a Bakelite wireless set and picking up past transmissions from Hilversum and Helsinki, Moscow and Madrid, Reykjavík, Berlin and Broadcasting House. One never quite knows what to expect next … a wholly original novel that will keep an attentive reader by turns engaged, intrigued and gratefully perplexed.’
DAVID COLLARD Literary Review

Radio Joan is available from Aaaargh! Press, here: https://www.aaaarghpress.com/product/radio-joan-kevin-davey/


About Nick Hayes

Brought up on the Isle of Sheppey, Nick lived in Chartham Hatch before enjoying the suburbs of Chestfield for ten years as his teaching career and family evolved. Where he was once destined for the position of a headteacher in an esteemed local grammar school, he has recently thought again and plans to develop his creative side. Embracing a life of frustration and poverty, he has chosen to attempt to work as a creative writer, publishing his first book and desperately seeking a readership.

You can find his book, Locked Unlocked, here.


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