When Harry Silver got dumped by his beautiful wife, Gina, and confessed his weaknesses, fears and insecurities in the first part of Parsons’s Boys trilogy, reviewers – especially male ones – praised the book for its emotional heft. The novel, Man and Boy, sold more than a million copies and was followed by an equally readable sequel, Man and Wife, in which Harry learned to live with his second wife, Cyd, also beautiful, and adapted to the world of the ‘blended family’, that modern mix of single parenting, step-parenting and post-divorce dialoguing. This third instalment finds Harry turning 40, now bereft of both parents and settled into his second marriage, with a young daughter to look after on top of the two kids he and Cyd have from previous marriages.
In the absence of close, supportive peers, Harry befriends an old soldier who knew his dad. This relationship serves as a vehicle for Parsons to declare, insistently, his admiration for war veterans and the way people used to work, live, love and stay married. In sharp contrast, we have Harry’s ongoing search for something like solidity or even steadiness.
The central point? The flimsy social structures of our time mean that many people hop in and out of relationships and other people’s lives – including those of their kids. The book doesn’t supply easy answers, but nor does it make you think there’ll be an unhappy ending for Harry, Cyd and their gang.
There’s a conventionality to many of the relationships, but the novel’s key strength is not its literary or even its emotional bravery. It’s the questioning of assumptions and prejudices which, even 11 years on, has a freshness and a daring of its own.