This is the second volume in a projected trilogy, which started with Pilcrow and will wrap up with a novel entitled either Caret or Umlaut. Cedilla continues the story of John Cromer, who, in the blurb to Pilcrow, was billed as one of literature’s weakest heroes. John has Still’s Disease, resulting in badly ankylosed hip joints and stunted growth. In this volume, having had his hips fairly brutally broken so that artificial hips can be fitted, he’s all set to head off first on a trip to India, and then to Cambridge. The theory was that he’d be much more mobile with the artificial hips; the reality is that he’s still tied to a wheelchair and steps are impossible for him to manoeuvre.
The novel is narrated entirely from John’s perspective, and he’s a fascinating narrator. As with Pilcrow, I keep forgetting that I’m reading a novel. The detail is so rich, precise and (for all I can tell) historically accurate, that I’ve certainly read vaguer autobiographies. Perhaps the give-away is that no real person would ever be quite so frank about their own thought processes, manipulations and weaknesses, and no genuine autobiography would have so many looping themes to be gathered together.
It’s not that John does anything so desperately interesting: he studies, listens to records, tries out drugs, has a difficult relationship with his mother, gets books from the library, makes yoghurt, struggles to get to, into and out of the Mini that he’s allowed to use for transport around college. Part of the novel’s achievement lies in the way that Mars-Jones manages to make John Cromer make all this banal stuff engaging. John is a complex character, not always likeable, open about his charm offensives, transparent in his snobberies and inconsistent in his thinking. He’s intelligent and can be very funny; he can also be a right little bastard. It’s all laid out for the reader, though, so that even if John is lying to himself or being disingenuous, we know it. He’s been good company for 600+ pp this week, and I’m looking forward to volume three.