Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651
Saville is a rich and detailed chronicle, an ambitious undertaking that tracks the progress of Colin Saville, the eldest son of a coal miner, from the 1930’s through the 1950’s and over the span of more than five hundred pages. It is regarded as Storey’s most significant work, and it won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Britain’s top literary award for fiction.
The Saville family lives in the coal-mining district of Yorkshire. Colin’s father, Harry Saville, leads a life of backbreaking work in the coal pits. Harry hopes for something more for his sons, Colin, Steven, and Richard, but especially for Colin, whose education is a matter of priority. Harry is good-natured but also ignorant and slow-witted. The mother is somewhat depressed and lethargic, and the brothers are distant and unmotivated. Ironically, Colin’s success pulling himself out of the coal-mining life and into a career as a teacher and poet creates resentment and bitterness in the family he leaves behind.
The story is realistic and objective, written in third-person voice. Despite that, the perception borders on first person, as every episode puts Colin at the center and all other characters are defined in terms of his relation to them—his father, his mother, or his brothers, for example. Nothing in the narrative is outside his direct experience. However, there is an important exception, for the novel begins some years before Colin’s birth. The first chapter and most of the second chapter deal with the birth and early life of Andrew, the son who died six months before Colin was born.
The exception is deliberate, for Storey creates a kind of ghostly presence hovering over Colin, who was expected to be the worthy replacement for Andrew. A much later scene has Colin visiting the cemetery where Andrew is buried and exorcizing his brother’s ghost to liberate himself so he can pursue his own life.
The life of the Savilles in Saxton, Yorkshire, is a microcosm set against the larger world of the Great Depression, World War II, the gradual breakdown of the British class system, and the fall of the British Empire. These forces contribute to Colin’s opportunity to shape a new life beyond the coal pits, but they also drive a wedge between Colin and his family. It is not that the family is cruel, loveless, or untrusting. Colin feels a strong bond and a sense of responsibility for his family. Similarly he develops strong friendships with others in his neighborhood. However, his abilities and his determination take him to new experiences far outside the realm of friends and family.
There are those who would like to pull Colin back and others who unwittingly hamper his ambitions. Among the former are the masters in his school, who like to abuse him verbally and hold him in check, as if they would prefer that he fail to realize his talents. Among the latter are Stafford, a friend and the son of one of the mine owners, whose social status ultimately alienates him from Colin. Colin’s love for Margaret, the daughter of a well-to-do physician, is similarly thwarted by the strictures of society. It is as though he becomes classless and belongs nowhere in that strange, unstable world of post-World War II England. Indeed, Elizabeth, a middle-aged woman who becomes a sort of substitute mother, tells him, “You don’t really belong to anything. . . . You’re not really a teacher. You’re not really anything. You don’t belong to any class, since you live with one class, respond like another, and feel attachment to none.”
In Colin’s farewell meeting with Margaret, who stays in Saxton while he moves to London, she says that changing the scenery does not change who one is, and she describes Colin “of belonging nowhere; of belonging to no one; of knowing that nowhere you stay is very real.”
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