The biggest surprise in Kathleen Jowitt’s self-published novel A Spoke in the Wheel, the story of disgraced cyclist (and doper) Ben Goddard’s attempt to rebuild his life, is how much of the plot is concerned with things other than cycling. It’s more interested in small-scale redemption, exploring the gracelessness of the modern world and what people can do to resist it, and it’s all the better for that. Jowitt has a talent for writing warm, witty fiction that teems with empathy for its characters, and in this book she’s played to her strengths, keeping her narrative grounded in her core trio.
The novel opens with Goddard being recognised by wheelchair-bound Polly in a pub:
The first thing I saw was the wheelchair. The first thing she saw was the doper. If you’re thinking that I’m the one who comes off looking like a dick, I couldn’t disagree with you.
Right away it’s possible to hear Ben’s voice, droll and self-critical, and that’s one of the novel’s considerable selling points – he’s the sort of character that you’re more than willing to spend a whole book with. His dry, self-reflective perspective on events is a welcome one, and although he’s undeniably flawed, it’s easy to invest in his redemption arc. He does, however, spend a considerable time in his own thoughts, and so it helps that Jowitt has surrounded him with an arguably more compelling cast of characters.
The key people in that cast of characters are Vicki – cycling-obsessed and fiercely determined to make the world a better place – and Polly, a former medical student who’s in a wheelchair because of a long-term illness (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I think) and allows Jowitt to explore the dehumanising nature of the current benefits system. It’s here that Jowitt’s novel is at its best, with a series of insightful vignettes that illustrate the complexities of benefit forms – “this bloody form!” she says at one point, wading through a 52-page document. “I’m halfway to convincing myself that I can’t do anything, ever. I can’t cook for myself and I can’t walk more than the length of a bus and I can’t do my own shopping and I can’t…” And when Ben asks her, “can’t you tell them you have good days and bad days?”, she scowls and mutters “not if I want them to give me anything, no.” Her reward for filling out the document is an appointment in an accessible office.
Jowitt’s novel is also illuminating when it comes to the difficulties faced by disabled people when trying to, say, take public transport (especially buses), or the way that people always seem to be watching, with terrible sanctions if you’re caught doing the wrong thing. In this regard, Polly’s story is told with subtlety and compassion, and with an admirable lack of melodrama: she is pragmatic about her difficulties, trying her best to overcome them but facing a great deal of obstacles and setbacks to overcome. It feels real, in short. The same is true of Vicki’s relationship with Gianna, a woman from her cycling club, and the implicit sexism that she faces from the club secretary.
It’s not fair to say that Ben’s doping experience is unimportant or uninteresting – he has a compelling backstory explaining his need to win, and there are some haunting scenes where he fears a knock on his door, or where if he doesn’t get out of bed his blood will literally turn into a “hyper-oxygenated gloop”, causing his heart to stop – but in truth these scenes stuck with me less than the everyday, domestic dramas faced by Ben, Vicki and Polly. This redemption arc, the story of a man basically trying to become a better human being, is where A Spoke in the Wheel is at its strongest.
There’s a theory in novel writing, popularised by people with ‘how-to’ books to sell, that your opening scene needs to set up a character with a goal and every subsequent scene needs to get them closer to that goal, or further from it. Jowitt doesn’t necessarily adhere to that, which gives her novel a more realistic feel, although to people accustomed to the rhythms of mainstream fiction it may occasionally feel a little meandering, lacking in high drama. For my part I found it a charming book – insightful, enlightening, and uplifting. That it fits well with the recent trend for ‘up-lit’, popularised by writers like Rachel Joyce and Gail Honeyman, is a testament to Kathleen Jowitt’s skill as a writer. I hope she continues playing to her strengths with her next book.
Thanks to Kathleen for providing a free review copy of her novel.