Review of ‘Mayflies’ by Andrew O’Hagan

A heartbreaking novel which you’ll be thinking about for a long time afterwards. I didn’t love it and yet I don’t regret reading it. I found some similarities to David Keenan’s This Is Memorial Device, which is also about Scottish lads obsessed with music in the 80s.

The story is narrated by James but it’s really about his best friend Tully, an exuberant, opinionated character. We don’t get to know James much and he is indeed, as is referenced in the book, the equivalent of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby.

The book is in two halves: 1986, when 18-year-old James, Tully and other mates have a brilliant weekend in Manchester, and 2017, when Tully phones James to tell him some devastating news. I felt that the structure should have been in flashbacks instead, because the latter half is difficult to wade through, not only the hard-hitting themes but the slow pace. Unnecessary peripheral characters pop up every so often, even near the end of the book. I suppose I just wanted some continuity, as the two halves were almost different books altogether.

James and Tully’s friendship is very special as they are always there for each other, even until the end. In some respects this book demonstrates that platonic bonds between male friends can transcend those between romantic partners. It also engages with what it means to be a working-class man and consciously breaking away from their fathers’ examples.

I can’t comment on how accurate the author’s evocation of 80s Manchester is, as I was not there, but this aspect should appeal to readers who were. Coincidentally (or maybe not), I started reading this book when I was in Manchester for the Crowded House concert earlier this year. Johnny Marr had a surprise cameo appearance on stage and also in this book (the characters adore The Smiths).

First published in 2020 by Faber and Faber.

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