Mark Robertson - Off Key
(Matador, 322pp., £8.99. Book Review by Chris Parker)
The strapline on the cover of this, drummer Mark Robertson’s first novel (though he has an award-winning TV play under his belt), claims that Off Key is ‘the greatest story ever told about love … and jazz (in Sunderland)’. This is undoubtedly true; it also neatly exemplifies the sardonic wit that characterises and enlivens the book, which is shot through with the slightly grim, world-weary wit so familiar in the jazz world.
The plot traces the fraught relationship between a feckless yet obsessively well-meaning saxophonist, Kyle, and a would-be barrister, Charlotte, who is torn between the world of her upper-middle-class parents and Kyle’s raffish, informal bohemianism. There is also an intriguing subplot involving an alcoholic jazz legend attempting to make a comeback (said saxophonist an ex-European Jazz Musician of the year, having cut his teeth with a thinly disguised Johnny Dankworth) and an autistic twelve-year-old who takes lessons from Kyle.
The book’s main attraction, however, is not the plotting (which basically follows a trajectory which will be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a feelgood romcom), but the detailed descriptions of the jazz musician’s life, on the road in unreliable vans, performing gigs in insalubrious venues, quarrelling endlessly over the division of the derisory spoils, but occasionally hitting musical heights that make the associated vicissitudes irrelevant. It is also commendable for the scrupulous attention it pays to its female characters, chiefly the wavering but fair-minded Charlotte, but also her feisty, witty and warm confidante, Dainty, who comes close to ‘stealing’ the book with her wisdom and wisecracks.
Sad to report, then (given the exuberance and sheer readability of the novel), that it appears not to have undergone any form of editorial process, routinely mixing up, as it does, its and it’s, your and you’re etc., misspelling words such as hiccup (hick-up), damned (dammed), linchpin (lynch pin), and (possibly worst offence of all) transforming our greatest female novelist into a car, Jane Austin. Punctuation is frankly chaotic, rendering some dialogue almost meaningless, and no decision seems to have been made concerning whether to use double or single quotes. I know I’m a tiresome fusspot on this subject (I recently refused to review a musician’s autobiography on this site because it contained literally hundreds of basic editorial mistakes), but books such as this deserve better from their publishers; what might have constituted an unequivocally enjoyable debut novel has been (avoidably) spoiled by cost-cutting.