Set in the small fictional town of Duneen, Graham Norton’s tender debut novel Holding will draw you in with a mystery, but you’ll stay for the genuinely sincere and well-rounded characters.
First of all, it’s refreshing to have a protagonist who isn’t a genius or a hunk. No, Duneen’s only police officer Sergeant PJ Collins is just an ordinary bloke. He’s overweight, a little insecure, and has never quite felt accepted in his new town. PJ has spent years drifting along under the radar, never really making connections or being pushed out of his comfort zone.
All that changes with a shocking and sobering discovery on a local farm: the bones of a young man. Immediately the town thinks they’ve found the last resting place of charismatic teen Tommy Burke, who hasn’t been seen for decades.
Everyone has been keeping their feelings about Tommy bottled up for a long time, including past flames Brid Riordan, now an unhappily married mother of two, and Evelyn Ross, who lives a lonely life up on the hill with her sisters Florence and Abigail. The discovery brings all kinds of unexpected truths to light, and emotions in the town to boiling point. As PJ attempts to solve his first real, non-parking-ticket-related case, he finds himself properly entangled with the inhabitants of Duneen and learns things about himself he never expected.
After many years as an interviewer and presenter, it’s not surprising that Norton knows how to get inside his characters’ heads, and all of his creations feel very real and flawed. There’s PJ, remembering a girl sniggering in his face as he asks her out, Brid pouring wine into a can of soft drink to hide her drinking from her husband, Evelyn grappling with her regrets and a lifetime of loss.
While there are certainly plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in Holding, there are also some very sad ones. In their own ways, all the characters have been through difficult times, and grief, loneliness and regret permeate through several beautifully written scenes.
Norton says this wasn’t originally the book he had planned, but as he wrote and got to know the people of Duneen, he was struck by “how their lives had become suspended somehow, due to grief, due to unhappiness, due to fear of failure,” and that he found he “wanted to treat them sympathetically and warmly.”
Not only has Norton crafted a well-paced mystery with carefully timed reveals and anticipation for a startlingly dramatic finale, but he’s also integrated a wonderfully realistic depiction of life in a small town. Progress in the case is woven through much more mundane events, like a yearly fete that is almost rained out, or a concert by candlelight with a local soloist singing a medley from Oklahoma.
While Norton’s trademark wit is certainly on show in his first novel, so is the kindness and interest in how people tick that has made him such a good interviewer. Even when it gets dark, Holding is a wonderful book, and here’s hoping only the first of many from Norton.
Graham Norton first hit our screens in Father Ted, before the BBC wisely saw to give him his own chat show. The very popular The Graham Norton Show has been running since 2007, with Norton interviewing celebrities and testing the storytelling talents of his audience in the big red chair. In the UK, Norton also hosts broadcasts of Eurovision, appears on radio, has a weekly column in The Telegraph, and is the recipient of 7 BAFTAs. Although Holding is his first novel, Norton is also the author of memoirs So Me and The Life and Loves of a He Devil.
Watch Graham read an extract and introduce one of his characters, Mrs Meany, here!