Mayflies – Andrew O’Hagan

Published By: Faber
Pages: 288
Released On: 03/09/2020

Everyone has a Tully Dawson: the friend who defines your life.

In the summer of 1986, in a small Scottish town, James and Tully ignite a brilliant friendship based on music, films and the rebel spirit. With school over and the locked world of their fathers before them, they rush towards the climax of their youth: a magical weekend in Manchester, the epicentre of everything that inspires them in working-class Britain. There, against the greatest soundtrack ever recorded, a vow is made: to go at life differently. Thirty years on, half a life away, the phone rings. Tully has news.

Mayflies is a memorial to youth’s euphorias and to everyday tragedy. A tender goodbye to an old union, it discovers the joy and the costs of love.

*****

*Contains plot spoilers*

The world and his wife have heard of this book, and I was part of that party, and yet I still hadn’t got round to reading it. But when I saw it was being turned into a TV show over Christmas 2022, I was determined to read it before watching it. Because even though I knew roughly what it was about, I had heard such good things about the book, I felt it deserved my initial attention.

It’s split into two sections: 1986 and 2017. The former takes up roughly 130 pages, and then 2017 takes up the rest. If I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy the first section nearly as much. I understand it’s important to read in order to understand the relationships and the decisions in the second section, but it felt a bit too rough. A bit too focussed on “boys will be boys” and it got a bit tedious. I was counting down the pages until the 2017 section. It didn’t hold my interest quite as much and it felt a bit stretched.

It felt too repetitive and I ended up doing what I don’t like doing, which is skimming and skipping pages. It was all drinking, swearing, flirting and watching bands. Over and over again. Repetitive and a bit boring. I know some people have said they didn’t like the section because the music and films mentioned weren’t to their taste. But I don’t think that’s it, for me. Lots of things I read contain references to media I’m unfamiliar with, and it doesn’t matter. But this didn’t feel concrete. It was all a bit over the place.

It started off well, the relationship that Tully and James have and it hooked me instantly, but then there’s this long period where they’re in Manchester and it’s a bit dull. But knowing how much I loved the beginning, I hoped that the later section would be more akin to that.

Everyone I’ve heard talk about this book gives it five stars and talks about how beautiful it is. But after some googling, I can see there’s a definite split. There are the five star reviews talking about how gorgeous and tender it is. But then there are the 2-3 star reviews, that like me, liked the start and the end, but felt it went downhill in the first section. So I’m glad I’m not alone in that.

People say about how original the story is and unlike anything they’ve seen before, but it reminded me a lot of the 2010 movie Third Star, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. (If you haven’t seen it, I’d definitely recommend it, it’s beautiful).

Tully ends up with the exact same type of cancer that my dad died of. It seems strange reading it, its like I’m reading it as if a stranger but also as a friend. Maybe that gave me a different view of the story from someone with no personal experience.

I thought it would be more Tully’s story than it was. James is our narrator, and sometimes this works, but I would have liked to have had both point of views, so we could have got an insular view and the outsider view.

It does bring up the topic of assisted dying again. I for one approve of it (obviously with regulations), but I know it’s a sensitive subject. I think this book provides a good argument for all viewpoints, but in a tender and empathetic way. It shows how we all wish we could have control over our passing, just like we have a (at least partial) control over our living.

It never felt it was a slog or a hardship to get through, but I did have the odd worry that it wasn’t going to be worth finishing. Whilst part of it was enjoyable, overall I’d say I was somewhat disappointed. I didn’t dislike it as such, but what with all the praise and accolades, I was expecting some marvel, and it just fell short of my expectations.

It was very much a book of two halves for me. The first was a mish-mash of action, quite nonsensical sometimes. The second half, not much happened in terms of plot, but it was big on heart and emotion. I read somewhere that you really have to read the first half to get an understanding of the second. And, to be honest, having read it, I don’t agree. Okay, yes, you always read the first half of a book so you get to know who everyone is and whatnot. But I think you could go straight into the second half and be completely fine with it.

Overall, I’m not sure what to say. Would I recommend it? Probably. Not as the great piece of writing people are saying it is. But I felt, the second half mostly, is important to read. I’m glad I’ve read it, I enjoyed it for the most part, and I’ll watch the TV adaptation, but it probably won’t be one I keep on the shelf for long. EDIT: I have since watched the two-part TV adaptation and that was simply gorgeous, much more palatable than the book for me.

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