The Mobile Library, by Ian Sansom (review)

Ian Sansom   The Case Of The Missing Books  Harper Perennial               £6.99  (paperback)

Ian Sansom is a droll, in the tradition particularly of Flann O’Brien, although his whimsy only teeters on the surreal, and his writing owes at least as much to Jerome K. Jerome. And he is in any case his own man. His first novel, Ring Road, was set, like his new one, in Antrim (Sansom is an Englishman who lives in Northern Ireland). He is a sort of poet of the joyfully run-down seaside town, a gentle satirist in love with most of his characters, their foibles, and their innocence – innocence which often turns out to disguise a highly literate culture. When Sansom’s new alter ego, Israel Armstrong, a would-be librarian, is teamed up with Ted, the burly, bullying local taxi-driver, Armstrong tries a smart remark about Dante’s Inferno. Ted replies idly that Carson’s translation is much better than those of Sinclair or Sayers. “What do you think a driver does on a mobile library when they’re not out driving, read the Sun?” asks Ted.

The Case Of The Missing Books is a mystery, a sustained piece of slapstick, a meditation and a yarn (a sequel’s already prepared). It is cripplingly funny. Israel is a Jewish Londoner, although half-Irish by birth, agreeably bookish, vegetarian, addicted to Nurofen, and an innocent who discovers that his job spec as librarian of the small town Tumdrum is a fiction. The council has shut the library, and set him up to go on the road with a clapped-out van. His second setback is that the library’s fifteen thousand books have gone missing. Incensed, he sets out to find them. Sansom uses Israel’s clueless sleuthing to send him chasing a skein of very wild and unruly geese; in the process, we are taken on a tour round the community, and its quirky, parochial world.

In bars, cafés, miniature estates, run-down mobile-homes, farms, shops, churches, we meet a wonderful cast of mildly eccentric ironists, at odds with one another, but nearly all in cahoots against authority. (Sansom skewers the local MP, who “looked and sounded as though he had devoted a lifetime to sucking on lemons and riding uncomfortable hobby-horses”.) There are hucksters and swindlers, wags and windbags, people bereaved by bombs, people blessed with canny and uncanny insights. Israel is mocked and mothered in equal measure. The regulations are ridiculous, the people resilient and warm, blessed with backchat which Sansom turns into terrific dialogue. He also enjoys himself, as in Ring Road, with impossibly long sentences, which leave you gasping for breath, largely because you’ve been trying to laugh while you follow them. Do not drink any beverage, of any description, when you are reading The Case Of The Missing Books. You will get a nose-bleed.


From The Independent