Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A Push and a Shove by Christopher Kelly

A Push and a Shove
Christopher Kelly

Published by: Alyson Books

Reviewed by: Steven J Watson

Ben Reilly teaches in high school. Dissatisfied and disappointed, closeted to all but a few and with a string of failed relationships in his past, nevertheless he is more or less satisfied with his life until, one afternoon, one of the kids in his senior class pushes another down the stairs. Ben is instantly taken back to his own experiences in high school, where he was bullied by the mysterious, enigmatic Terrence O’Connell, a boy for whom Ben had seen a crush develop into a dangerous obsession. He quickly (and, I have to say, not entirely convincingly) decides that, if he is ever to move on with his life he must give up his job to track down the adult Terrence , in order to confront him with the effects of his actions so long ago. What he finds, though, is a very different Terrence from the one he remembers, and Ben is not the only one with things left to work out.

Christopher Kelly’s debut novel is a confident, assured piece of writing. He weaves the past and present together skilfully, building up a compelling portrait of the bullied as well as his oppressor, and cleverly reveals how apparently pre-meditated campaigns of oppression can be entirely arbitrary at their core. The book can be read as a meditation on identity, too, on how the past is what makes us what we are, but also how much of what we are lies beneath the surface, hidden from view. The book can tend towards the bleak - Ben’s family is fractured, riven by secrets and all but destroyed by their inability to communicate over his sister’s early death – but (just) avoids being mawkish.

A Push and a Shove is an enjoyable read, but one cannot help but feel that Kelly’s best work is still to come. There are too many moments of implausibility here and attempts to ratchet up the drama that are simply unnecessary. The writing is enjoyable, though it too is solid rather than spectacular. Too often the narrative is stalled by Kelly’s unnecessary labouring of a point and one finds oneself yearning for a more ruthless editor. Nevertheless ‘A Push and a Shove’ is certainly enjoyable, and minor quibbles aside, recommended.

Steven J Watson lives and works in London. He is currently working on his first novel as well as numerous short stories, and writes regular columns for several magazines. He can be contacted at



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