Except for the many splendid examples where a spine-chillingly awful ending kicks the rosy sunset into touch. Endings where hope is lost and redemption evaporates. These are the conclusions you remember. Of course, they’re near impossible to get right. One misery too many and you’re in The Casual Vacancy territory – nobody wants that.
But now I stop to think about it, although I love cheery squeaky endings as much as the next inveterate fiction reader, some of my most beloved books have vicious, slicing endings. Catch-22. Famously, Gone with the Wind. And now my latest favourite, Brighton Rock.
Brighton Rock is in many ways a depressing little book, but the brilliance with which it captures and depicts a world makes this more Jude the Obscure and less Casual Vacancy (thank God) – strangely uplifting despite the content. It is beautiful, balanced catharsis, within a simultaneously simple and complex read. Greene began writing the book as a pot-boiling-thriller, and the initial section is little more than an excellent thriller sequence. But after this the novel spans out its fingers, so you could choose to describe it as a book “about” many things – about the poor vs the middle class, about Catholicism and spirituality, about 1930s Brighton, about gang warfare, about the psychological impact of poverty, about love and fear… it’s a worthy of study. For me, the most fascinating element is the meeting of two entirely different perspectives – the young, catholic, slum poor, and the middle-age, sense-of-justice lower-middle class. While the poor protagonists Pinkie and Rose see the world in terms of good and evil, the middle-class Ida sees it in terms of right and wrong. And the two world views are not in sync.
The horror of this clash is demonstrated most strongly at the end of the novel, where Rose struggles over her command from her husband to commit suicide. While she knows it is objectively wrong, she feels that to disobey and abandon her husband would be evil: “If it was a guardian angel speaking to her now, he spoke like a devil – he tempted her to virtue like a sin…The evil act was the honest act, the bold and the faithful – it was only lack of courage, it seemed to her, that spoke so virtuously.”
Where your average novel would come down clearly on the side of “right”, the fascinating thing about Brighton Rock is its support of the good/evil opposition. Ida’s middle-class right/wrong understanding is rejected as totally irrelevant to the extent that she barely exists as a human being to Pinkie and Rose. Only the world of good and evil is truly, vividly alive, and made to seem the flawed but true reality. Whether today’s reader agrees with Greene on this is a different matter; the hostility of the depiction of Ida is almost clumsy (she is an overly soft, immoral, animal-like being) but her perspective is the one that makes sense to modern culture. But it is the savage world of eternal heaven and eternal damnation that comes burning out of the pages. And the heart of the novel – Pinkie’s inability to comprehend, and thus desire, the notion of heaven – is a biting indictment of poverty.
This is a novel of fire and ice, raging love and frost-cold hatred. The ending is a virtuoso horror, left exquisitely burning beyond the final page. Heaven and hell are experienced in the read as well as the story – infernal brilliance.