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Watching The River Flow - a review of Yellow (the novel) by Dave Thompson

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It takes a lot these days to pull me away from other activities and post a new blog. I've reviewed books in the past but only summon up the energy to do so when I'm really taken with one. This one had me hooked from the get-go, and reeled me to the finish, laughing all the way.

"People disagreeing everywhere you look
Makes you wanna stop and read a book" 
Watching The River Flow, Bob Dylan.

According to the Amazon description, " 'Yellow' is a romantic comedy about the big themes in human experience: connection and separation; risk and reward; crowd control and finding the nearest toilet." Yep, that's pretty much on target.

The book is littered with colourful characters and their interactions, with the constant and, it seems to me, novel back-drop of work as a steward at public events, unapologetically in (post-troubles) Northern Ireland. It's all very "real" - right down to Fundamentalists protesting events, often on the basis of misunderstanding - but not at all gritty. Like happens reading other good novels, I began to forget these weren't real people and I missed them at the end of the novel. I guess one reason it's so relatable is that it's likely informed by observing a river of people flowing into various entertainment venues and those policing them. Stewarded events range from line-dancing in Ballyclare (where Robbie the central character watches the actual river flow) to posh folk tasting posh food in a field near Hillsborough, to arena tours of some of the biggest rock and pop artists on the planet. It's the best of "reality TV" (can't believe I wrote that phrase) without the silicone cleavages, pouting of excessively injected lips, or male chests fresh from liberal application of depilatory cream, and too much time on a sunbed. On reflection, maybe the author will be troubled by such a comparison! At the risk of keeping digging, I'd say it's much more Gogglebox (with some of the colourful strong language) than Love Island. I hope the novel travels as well as Derry Girls. It is worthy of a much wider audience than Ulster.

Confession - I know the author personally but this review was unsolicited and, regardless of who was the book's author, simply wouldn't have appeared if I didn't love the book. The biggest problem I had reading it was seeing the central character and narrator as a fictional individual since (apart from marriage break-up in the novel) that character, Robbie, seems perilously close in personality, sense of humour, warmth, observational prowess, empathy (and experience as a steward in hi-viz) to the author I know. Robbie is a Dylan fan. If books were albums, I'd say this is Dave Thompson's Blood on the Tracks, only fuelled by encounters whilst stewarding and in other settings, rather than by personal relationship breakdown. It's like he has skipped the dubious tentative debut album, gone straight for the classic, and done it as an Indie artist to boot. Like Dylan's colourful naming of people in his songs (or Bob Mortimer's hilarious accounts on UK TV panel game Would I Lie To You), Robbie applies a variety of monikers to fellow stewards. There is a warm and astute observational humour throughout.

Of course as well as Dylan, Robbie, in his early fifties, likes lots of other musicians of long-standing, and discussions with others about music permeate the book. In places it reminds me of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," but it's not derivative.

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Like Hornby, there are quotable observations in the context of relationships, or would-be romances. One of my favourites from Hornby is "It's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party." I'm pretty sure Robbie would agree. In Yellow, Robbie inherits a turntable (record player) from his deceased father and fondly describes the ritual of carefully taking a vinyl record out of its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and lowering the stylus.  He describes it as "an act of remembrance" but that it's even more than that, it's like the deceased is present in the room. (Must have a good amp and speakers too, heh heh). Robbie is looking for "communion" with a particular girl who's somewhat out of reach. There are themes of relationship breakdown, separation, restoration, redemption and new beginnings.

Apart from the hi-viz jackets, a few other things that are yellow get a mention - ranging from Coldplay's song to bodily fluids. One of the characters in Dylan's "Tombstone Blues" asserts "The sun's not yellow, it's chicken." Well, when it comes to offering opinions, Robbie ain't chicken. He often regrets not taming his tongue more. Like the recent Rolling Stones world tour (where yellow was the dominant colour branding), too often he has #nofilter. However, in pursuing his girl, he often does find himself tongue-tied.

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Dave Thompson deserves a contract from a publisher with all the benefits that come with that (pay and professional proof-readers and editor). This is a very fine debut despite lacking those advantages. Just. Get. It. It's available on that big river, Amazon. Once it's a best seller, I look forward to it being snapped up, High Fidelity-style, by the movie industry. It's that good.



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