Review by

The Gallopers

Atmospheric tale of secrets and loss in 1950’s England

From the beginning, 19-year-old Eli tells us that he’s something other than he appears to be. Young and gay in Norfolk, 1953, this austere, post-war decade demands a conformity and obedience that threatens to stifle his dreams. In mourning for his dead mother, Eliza, who was lost to the infamous North Sea flood, Eli lives with his mentally fragile aunt in a hostile community, whose members are prone to anonymously lobbing stones through their windows. In The Gallopers by Jon Ransom, torturous secrets are uncovered through the prism of Eli’s relationships with workmate, Shane Wright, and Jimmy Smart, a charismatic showman from a travelling fair.

It’s been six months since the freak storm surge that washed away land, livelihoods, and people, including Eli’s mother, whose body has never been recovered. His otherworldly aunt, Dreama, has been devastated by this, and spends her days between church and wandering the countryside, collecting remnants left by the flood water; single shoes, a child’s doll, mismatched china that she lays on the table for teatime. Other times she goes astray, to be found in the family field, which she believes to be cursed. She feels Eliza in her heart, like a stone she says. Considering the growing number of broken window panes  at home, it’s Eli’s opinion they don’t need any more of those.

Since the flood, the uneasy relationship between them and the ‘townies’ has darkened. Inexplicably, their field had been left untouched by the deluge, ‘as if something had a hand in it.’ Into this miasma of rumour and mistrust comes travelling showman Jimmy Smart, who rides the boards on a classic merry-go-round, turning both ‘the gallopers,’ and the heads of everyone he meets, including, prophetically, Eli.

We’re big fans of Ransom’s intense and evocative writing. Here he revisits themes from his excellent 2022 debut, The Whale Tattoo, in particular gay working class life in communities mired in repressive sexual and gender conformity. Eli works in the traditionally masculine environment of a print shop, alongside Shane, whose inky hands have often strayed from the printing press to leave smudges on Eli’s body; their sexual relationship clandestine and uneasy.

When Jimmy Smart arrives with his big smile and bright spirit, he conjures a sexual spell that bewitches the unworldly Eli, the nature of this desire captured brilliantly by Ransom, in scenes practically crackling with eroticism and yearning.

Of course it’s 1953 and you can get arrested for such things. Eli struggles with a mounting sense of dread, compounded by Dreama’s unravelling mind, news of a missing local girl, and the ever-present sense of foreboding around the field.

Admirably bold (the midsection of the novel presents us with a 1988 playscript that whispers from the future), and laced with a cleverly symbolic smoking motif, Ransom’s post-war tale of secrets and loss is an excellent second novel from a distinctive and compelling writer.

If you like this, see also The Whale Tattoo by Jon Ransom.

The Gallopers by Jon Ransom is published by Muswell Press, 208 pages.

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