Review of "Key to the Door" by Alan Sillitoe

by Dennis Potter (Daily Herald, 18th October 1961)

This novel by the author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a tremendous piece of writing, crackling with energy with pity and restless but accurate observation.

Key To The Door, as the name suggests, is about the first 21 years in the life of Brian Seaton, and so becomes, as it gathers more and more detail, more and more compassion, the story of a generation, a class and a country.

The first half is set in pre-war Nottingham, where people have become unusable, thrown on the dole, twisted by the indignities and humiliations of life on the breadline.

We are given some memorable characters and great humour as well as the stench of despair.

The children, tangled half with reality and half with their own fantasy, accepting the fist round the ear or the bread and jam dinners, are not pale reflections from the nostalgic sentimentality of the adult.

When one of them talks of his ambition to build a hut in Sherwood Forest and sit smoking “fags” by the fire, never having to go out, and with plenty of comics to read, we see its relevance against the hopeless, anxiety-ridden working class world of his parents.

Brian, in the second half, is on National Service in Malaya, where the guerillas are beginning to operate against British rule. The atmosphere, the characters, the tensions are so different here that a chasm might have opened up in the novel.

But Mr Sillitoe weaves the two stages together in a more profound way than merely through the character of his central and wholly credible figure.

This novel is a great achievement.  There has been nothing better published this year - nor is there likely to be.

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