Four things attracted me to Andrew Cowan’s Your Fault: its working class, ‘60s setting; its unusual structure; its length and its publisher, Salt Publishing whose list is never anything but interesting. Set in one of those new towns beloved by British town planners of the mid-twentieth century, Cowan’s novella has fifty-five-year-old Peter tell his story to himself, from his first memory in 1962 to the day his childhood ended.
Peter was born on the first day of the new decade. His father is a Scot, an ex-soldier working as a fitter at the steelworks where most of the town’s men are employed. He’s much older that Peter’s mother, forty-one to her seventeen when they first met on Malta where he was stationed. Peter knows Dolly is unhappy, that she sees other men and that she feels trapped in a stifling routine of housework and childcare. His parents rows are a constant and distressing soundtrack to his childhood. Sometimes, Dolly disappears leaving him alone with his little sister, Lorraine. Peter goes to school, makes friends, suffers the usual torments of embarrassment when he gets things wrong and is horrified when an outbreak of sibling rivalry goes too far. Eleven years after Peter’s first memory, his and Lorraine’s childhood ends with a shocking discovery by her, leaving him with a longing to step in and change both their stories.
Cowan unfolds Peter’s story through vivid snapshots of childhood memories, seen from the vantage point of the same age his father was when he died. Gaps are gradually filled as the years progress, small details slipped in making clear that this is not a happy household. Cowan is the master of show not tell, leaving much to the reader to infer. His characters are sharply observed – Dolly’s frustration at being tied to a baby and a toddler is perfectly caught, Peter’s conviction that she exists only for him brilliantly conveyed. Period detail summons up the ‘60s and ’70s beautifully, from the housewives’ Tupperware party, family holidays at Butlin’s and the Tufty Club joined by children who’d learned the rules of road-crossing, to the lives of women, curtailed by housewifery and childcare, their misery medicated with tranquilisers. All this is communicated through the young Peter’s eyes as his fifty-five-year-old self struggles with his past. Hard not to wonder if this is a slice of autofiction given that Cowan was brought up in Corby, a ‘60s new town with a steelworks at its heart, which makes its ending all the more poignant.