Cometh the hour, cometh the book! Just when we had lapsed into the nightmarish ‘social isolation’ that has attended the COVID-19 pandemic, I happened upon this novel through the vagaries of Twitter and the #WritingCommunity. Perhaps, in keeping with the book, it might almost have been fated to rescue me from a state of pervasive gloom and offer a literary balm to a bruised psyche. Indeed, Kevin Ansbro’s tale of love and devotion, in a variety of forms, is teeming with the ‘feel good factor’, but also succeeds in realizing the author’s self-confessed penchant for “handcuffing humour and tragedy to the same radiator”. It is hard to pidgeon-hole this book neatly into a single genre. Thrilling - certainly, philosophical at times, but it is also brimming with pathos, humour, suspense and love rather than romance, juxtaposed with far darker strands of human life and even the hereafter.
To revel in what man (and woman) is capable of, is to wonder at a fathomless capacity for altruistic good and yet also recognize a breathtaking instinct for selfishness and even unalloyed evil. In “The Fish that Climbed a Tree” the author deftly traverses that continuum in a cleverly conceived plot that draws upon the experience of an impressive range of characters, whose respective journeys are influenced by an active (or in some cases very redundant) moral compass.
The heroically named Ulysses Drummond, vicar of St Cuthbert’s, Hackney, and Iraq war veteran, was of a good family and with his diminutive wife Florence had made a very positive contribution to their community. They were also proud parents of Henry, aged 10, when the couple were brutally murdered in front of their young boy. By contrast, the murderers - Ukranian gangster, Yuri Voloshyn and Rwandan war criminal, Pascall Makuza, are on a very different trajectory towards judgement day. Still, whether by fate, or a series of coincidences, the Drummonds will be dogged by that fateful day, as Henry passes into adulthood and a date with destiny foretold in the book’s prologue.
Along the way, through boarding school and into his life in London, Henry’s timid, shy naivety ensures he is bullied and beaten, nurtured and comforted, encouraged and feted, but it is the relationships that he forms and the decisions he must live by, which intrigue the reader. That and the heady blend of supporting characters, so well drawn, as to remind me of Dickens, long before the author’s nod to “A Christmas Carol” in the final chapter.
While I accept that, at times, Ansbro's extravagant use of language, with a liberal sprinkling of adjectives, similes and metaphors may not be to every taste, for me such flourishes added to the charm of this book. The underground train’s “doors closed with a matron’s shush…”, simply an example of well-crafted writing. Indeed, the style (except for the repeated use of “Omigod”) felt part of some glorious former era, which of course may say as much about my reading preferences.
However, in a happy coincidence, my review also now chimes with #IndieApril and pays tribute to an often neglected well of writing talent. Moreover, I am grateful to Kevin Ansbro for a tremendous diversion in these troubled times and do not hesitate in loading this novel onto my ‘favourites’ shelf. I hope that when I return to it in future, I shall recall the contrasting real-life circumstances surrounding this first reading.