Set in England during the 1800s, James Farner’s Changing of the Guard is a story that builds layer upon layer, from viewpoint after viewpoint, to create a suspenseful narrative.
“Mrs Forsyth was happy to steer the conversation away from Edward’s future. It was a future he couldn’t yet know about.”
The story centres around Edward Urwin, an orphaned boy who lives with his working class aunt and uncle. Through a series of chance encounters and incredible good fortune, a boy destined to work in the factories is put through school and given a life he thought impossible.
Those he meets along the way often have linked pasts and as the novel progresses we get to see the world from other viewpoints, which helps fill in the gaps and keep the story moving. The more we learn, the more intriguing things get and as the book draws to a close there are plenty of questions to be answered.
The story, its setting in time and the method of its telling are all reminiscent of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries but while Catton’s twists and turns add more and more to the engagement of the story, Farner’s similar attempts are occasionally confusing and unwieldy.
When done well this complicated approach works beautifully, and although Changing of the Guard is a good attempt, it could have done with a bit more fine tuning before being shared with the world.
One particularly jarring aspect is the character’s dialogue which doesn’t fit in with much of the surroundings — there’s little that reflects the town, the time or the class of the characters — ultimately this makes it hard for them to stand out.
As the first book in the Pomp and Poverty series, Changing of the Guard builds a solid foundation for what’s to come but frustratingly seems to have fallen short of what it could have been.