Monday, 4 October 2010

French Fried by Chris Dolley

Our Northumbrian farm cottage was built by a Northumbrian farmer and modernised by his son. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a farmer to build a dog kennel, so not surprisingly, over the years one or two features of the cottage have proved something of a challenge, particularly the stone fireplace the previous inhabitants (aforementioned son and family) were so proud of that they built another when the moved into the farmhouse. It was ugliest thing you’ve ever seen and took days to demolish (I believe the farmhouse version was equally recalcitrant). Inside this massive edifice was quite the meanest grate imaginable; it was a pig to light and smoked badly when the wind was in the wrong direction (that is, prevailing), so we were very happy when we could finally afford to replace it all with a woodburner. The prevailing wind, however, still comes from the same direction, so it’s not much easier to light than it ever was, although by the third winter we felt we were getting the hang of it.As you can imagine, then, my sympathy was readily roused when I found that Chapter 5 of French Fried by Chris Dolley dealt only with the difficulties he and his wife had experienced when they moved into their new French home with its unfamiliar fireplace. How could I not read the chapter with bated breath, as though I too was choking in the smoke which billowed into their living room? How could I not shiver empathically (you  might put it down to a draughty train, but I know it was the power of suggestion) as winter sets in with no solution found? Did I recognise the fruitless search for suitable fuel? You bet I did! although happily, ours was conducted in a familiar language. Unfortunately, it was all too grimly familiar for me to laugh at. I felt rather the same way about their trouble with the plumber, the vagaries of our own water supply having recently caused me to be exceedingly sharp with an employee of Scottish Water, although it was hardly their fault that the previous owner of the farm had, for 15 years, left two large holes in the water supply, albeit thoughtfully marked with pilfered traffic cones. As Dolley remarks of his French home, “Heath Robinson could have taken notes.”

I did rather better with Dolley’s description of their journey to France which entailed a concerted battle with an unwilling horse and two horse boxes. Similarly with the lurcher Gypsy’s unwillingness to pass up the opportunity to attack a passing ankle, let alone a foreign dog. Mind you, after a summer of helping our neighbour with her horses, younger son would recognise the bitter experience behind this comment:
I've often wondered how Rhiannon would have fared in the Wild West. And where cowboys found horses that could be left loosely tied outside saloons? Every horse I've ever come into contact with would have disappeared before the first foaming pint came sliding down the saloon bar. And as for riding through gunfire – none of our horses would have made it past the first oddly shaped haystack let alone ridden into danger.
If there is a problem with this sort of “how we moved to France and how it all went wrong” book, it is that the tone of frenetic hilarity begins to feel a bit forced after a while, and you wish you could have a few pages when the author isn’t trying to make you laugh. No, honestly, you want to protest, just tell me about it, a few pages of description is fine, you must have liked to France to want to move there, but right now I haven’t a clue why you did because your relentless xenophobia is getting in the way. It’s the sort of writing which is taught by correspondence course – pile on the escapades, the deprecatory comments and long-suffering tone without pause, nice short, pithy sentences and paragraphs please, so that the pace never flags, keep up at the back there and put your kiss-me-quick hat back on, you’re not joining in the fun. It all becomes a bit exhausting.

When, in the second half of the book, things suddenly look at bit bleak for Chris and Shelagh, because all their savings had disappeared in a case of identity theft, the style of writing ought to be markedly different, but it all sounds a little too much the same. The short, pithy paragraphs continue unabated, the tone – slightly puzzled, slightly ironic, distinctly facetious – is still there. It’s an easy one for the British writer to adopt – perhaps our besetting sin, familiar right across the board at the lighter end of literary endeavour. We court approval with it in school and many of us never lose it.

You’ll probably have gathered from the foregoing that I have mixed feelings about this book, probably enjoying it more than I feel I ought to have done. The detective story – following up the trail of the identity thief – does lift it out of the run-of-the-mill moving-to-a-foreign-country-disaster story and contains some genuine surprises and twists. Evidently, Dolley realises that there is really is no more mileage in the awfulness of plumbers, and at least takes some responsibility for his own inability to communicate in the language of his chosen home. But I have to admit that the obligatory farcical set-piece (in this case, a football match) was skipped by this less-than-intrepid reader. Sometimes an author just goes too far. Similarly, having read the chapter in which his mother-in-law arrives, I can only imagine that either she is now deceased or Dolley divorced. As she was 80 at the time of the visit (sometime in the 1990s), though, he probably no longer has to fear a libel suit.

French Fried came to me via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers. My world would have been no different if I  hadn’t read it, but it helped to while away a long and dreary train journey, as did writing my review.

* Edited later to add this link to LindyLouMac's review of French Fried, which adds some interesting tidbits about its route to publication.


  1. I really liked this review of yours. It does not make me want to read the book, but I enjoyed your description and appreciate your honest words.
    The "oddly shaped haystack" made me laugh :-)

  2. Yes, I liked it too. It sounds as thought the author was trying too hard!

    You don't have to have an old house for the chimney to smoke - ours does.

    By the way, the header photo on my blog is as you realised of the Cheviots - taken from Shellacre.

  3. I know what you mean about this sort of book but I have to confess to having a sneaky fondness for the better end of the genre as I still have a hankering for that place in France (used to be Tuscany but even I know when I'm out of my league).
    I do know what the writer means about the seemingly careless way they tie up horses in westerns though - if you tried that with most of the ponies I grew up around, you would end up with a very long walk!
    Enjoyed the honesty of the review!

  4. I found your blog today via Linda Gillard and Rosy Thornton on FB and I am very glad I did. Always looking for new bookbloggers especially British ones :)

    I was very interested to come across this review for French Fried as I also reviewed it recently and like you had very mixed feelings.