A debut novel offers a dark look at the music business.
Where does this novel diverge from biography and into the free play of imagination? It’s a question one can’t help addressing whilst reading ‘William the Conqueror‘, the new novel by Ruarri Joseph. It’s William’s coming of age story shifting from a not so idyllic rural childhood in England, through a more or less enforced move by his mother to New Zealand followed a few years later by William’s relocation back to London and subsequent attempts to break into the music business. That Ruarri Joseph grew up originally in rural England, moved to New Zealand, and then returned to London to try and make it in the music business – recording well-received albums under the moniker William the Conqueror – rather draws the reader into asking that question. But unlike the eponymous hero of Richmal Crompton’s stories, this William the Conqueror struggles not so much in being found to have done bad whilst trying to do good but more in not doing bad when he clearly wants to and messing up good things when they do choose to come along.
The book takes the form of an internal dialogue with William often defending himself against an aggressively critical other – one might say that it’s the Ego and the Super-Ego endlessly having it out, although as the book progresses the critical voice sometimes comes onside with the main protagonistic voice, indicating a mental coming together as William forms a developed adult persona. That’s adult with a pinch of salt, as he’s something of a dreamer with unreasonably high hopes for his impending stardom and a continuing reckless side as he experiments with drugs and skirts the edges of legality, combining both in a memorable first visit to the Glastonbury festival. This internal wrangling makes for an intriguing approach to storytelling, but it does limit the world view solely to being William’s – few characters ever take the time to explain or justify themselves. Or perhaps William just doesn’t find their viewpoints to be relevant. The emphasis on the critical analysis of a life by the Super-Ego voice has the effect of being quite a grim read – no mistake is let go, no act of selfishness is forgiven. And William gives him plenty of ammunition – with a couple of huge “blunders” as well as a series of the standard teenage awkwardnesses.
The jury may be out on whether dropping song lyrics into one’s text is a good thing, but it’s certainly a thing that happens every few pages in ‘William the Conqueror‘, to the extent that sometimes it may just be a coincident phrase that’s jumping out in a line, but there it is making itself known anyway. Dylan is a touchstone who can be relied on for an apposite phrase. Despite some “adult themes” it feels as if this is a novel probably aimed more squarely at a Young Adult market – the writing style and the smudgy black and white chapter illustrations tend to support that. It’s an interesting debut, and whilst not perhaps the definitive rock and roll novel it’s certainly a novel that gives an insight – exaggerated in places it is to be hoped – into a murky side of the business of music.
‘William The Conqueror‘ is available now from Blue Raincoat Books.