Richard Owain Roberts’s ‘Hello friend we missed you’

November 20, 2020 0 Comments

Hello friend we missed you is Richard Owain Roberts’s first novel.  Published by Parthian, it was nominated for this year’s Guardian ‘Not the Booker’ prize.  It duly won the award in October 2020 after a readers’ vote.

In the book Roberts sets himself a big challenge: how to engage us as readers with a protagonist who singularly fails to engage with anyone around him, especially with those nearest to him. 

The plot is straightforward.  Hill – he seems to have no other name – is a failed filmmaker.  He returns to his childhood homeland, Ynys Môn, with only a cat for company, to be with his father, Roger, who’s terminally ill.  He meets Trudy, employed temporarily to care for Roger.  She’s druggy and drifting and, rather improbably, writing a PhD.  A sexual relationship between them develops quickly but fails to grow into anything more, and eventually Trudy leaves Hill for Australia. Roger dies.

The novel is economical in length.  It’s divided into numerous short, filmic episodes.  The cool, if not stone-cold, third person narrator focusses exclusively on Hill, giving only the sparest insights now and again into what’s going on in his head.  The coolness involves a staccato style and a great deal of repetition, which some readers have disliked as mannerist.  Here is a typical example:

Hill turns off the engine and looks straight ahead.  The car park is at ~5% capacity.

I will never leave here, Hill thinks.

Hill picks up a small box of low calorie toffees and puts two in his mouth.

Don’t crunch them, Hill thinks.

Hill crunches the toffees and swallows the pieces as quickly as he can.

Eat when you feel sad, Hill thinks.

The events of the novel take place on ‘the island’, though, like the characters, it’s deliberately drained of ‘local colour’.  Fortunately, there’s plenty of humour, though it tends to happen without the knowledge of Hill or Trudy.  What people wear is noted in detail.  Cable-knit sweaters loom large, in what might be a parody of Brett Easton Ellis’s American psycho.  Much fun is had with the increasingly desperate email drafts Hill writes to Jack Black, the American actor, about a film pitch Hill made to him that Black has apparently ‘forgotten’.

The blank style, though, is the point.  Its disengagement and laconism are a mirror of Hill’s state of mind, which barely changes through the book.  Though he’s apparently come to help his father, he never goes to see him.  This looks callous.  Trudy offers him some comfort, but he usually seems incapable of reciprocating the admittedly casual attention she pays him.

The truth is that Hill is a deeply damaged person.  His professional life seems to be in ruins (a faint echo of it is his half-hearted attempt to film Trudy on a beach with his mobile phone).  His strangely unfilial view of Roger, which ranges from indifference to hatred, stems from what Hill regards as his ‘murder’ of his dead mother – who, it turns out, has gained posthumous revenge by leaving her house to her son, not to Roger.  We never meet Roger, but from the few unaffectionate messages he sends his son, it’s clear that he in turn has no very high opinion of Hill.  To make things worse, Hill’s wife Lucy has died.

All this helps to explain, though maybe not excuse, Hill’s inability to communicate with Trudy and others.  He picks up signs that Trudy is preparing to leave him, but fails to do anything to prevent her.  In one of the finest chapters in the novel, set in an unsufferable house party, the two find each other, share a ‘really weak’ joint, and talk.  Or, rather, Trudy talks.  When she shows him an old video of her as a girl in a television series Hill’s response is dismissive and insulting.  When she announces she’s going to Australia his only response is, ‘Well, that’s fine.  Roger will have to die alone’.  He lapses into hopeless silence: ‘Hill repeatedly attempts to speak but can’t get the words out, his eyes drawn to the small ‘Doom’ scrawled in biro beneath the window ledge’.

After she’s gone to Australia, Trudy hears the news that Roger is dead.  In a webcam encounter with Hill she breaks down in tears.  All he can do is notice the tattoo on her right arm, the watch Roger gave her, and her tanned and muscular arms.

Hill, your fucking dad died, say something, Trudy says, the failing internet connection rendering her words a glitchy staccato.

Roger died four days ago, Hills says.  I don’t know what else to say.  He left me instructions on how to do everything.  It’s okay.

Hill listens to the sound of ancient plumbing briefly shuddering to life, the sound of dog snores, the sound of

The final chapter is longer than the rest.  Its title, ‘(Any kind of hope is beautiful)’, raises a hope in the reader that Hill will finally confront the lack of meaning in his life, his blotting out of the world (‘no bad thoughts, no thoughts at all’, as he said earlier).  He drives his car to the seashore.  He’s already contemplated premature airborne death in the opening chapter, and now he briefly imagines death by drowning.  Instead, he fixes his eyes on the landscape of the Strait before him and recalls his childhood on the island in the company of his friends.  Then he remembers Trudy telling him that he always had a choice of how to react to events, and Roger’s sarcastic advice to him to ‘be productive’.  There might be a positive future, he concludes, in a long series of short ‘he thinks’.  The novel ends, ‘Thank you for bringing me here, Hill, Roger says.  The temperature is fine’ (presumably Hill is about to scatter his ashes on the water).

Some readers, I suspect, will wonder about whether this resolution, if that’s what it is, is worth waiting for, after tolerating Hill’s earlier negativities – whether, that is, they can meet the challenge Richard Owain Roberts throws at them at the start.  But on the way every reader will feel that they’ve heard a distinctive new voice in long-form fiction, one with plenty to say and a confident way of saying it.

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