Mervyn Jones 1922-2010

I was very sorry to learn of the death of the British novelist Mervyn Jones.

I never met him and don’t know much about his life, but I’ve loved his books for thirty years now. I first started reading him because the title of one of his books was an Auden quote. I was a teenager desperate for books with no discrimination when let loose in the library, which had advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes I got lucky, and this was one of those times. Today the Struggle wasn’t just about the Spanish Civil War as you might expect. It’s about two generations of two families of left wing British people, and how the Spanish Civil War changed their lives. It had great female characters. It had a kind of historical consciousness that you don’t normally see in mainstream fiction, and a class consciousness too, yet it was totally absorbed in its characters and their actions. It was like a family saga written by a communist. It blew my socks off.

I went on to read everything else Jones had ever written, ordering it all from the library and reading it in great gulps. I then read everything else he wrote as he published it. My favourite of his novels are Two Women and Their Man and Mr Armitage Isn’t Back Yet. Neither of them are the kind of books you’d think they might be from their titles. The first is a study in points of view—three people tell their stories of the events of a year ten years before, and you slowly build up a picture of what actually happened through their preconceptions and inconsistencies. I often recommend it to people asking how to write in the first person—along with I Capture the Castle and Dying Inside. Mr Armitage Isn’t Back Yet is about a man who is kidnapped and finds out once he’s managed to get outside it that he doesn’t like his life very much.

Jones wrote one  SF novel, On the Last Day, which I found rather disappointing—it’s a near future (of 1958) novel of Britain conquered by the Soviets and resistance organized in Canada. His strengths as a writer weren’t in speculation but in a solid understanding of history and a wonderful ability to get inside people’s heads. The most science-fictional thing about his writing was his understanding that times changed and technologies changed and people changed with them—along with the knowledge that we are living on a planet, not in a suburb. Strangers, which I think of as his best known book, is about how hard it is to do good in the real and complex world.

The world is a colder place without him.


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