This is probably Ken Champion’s best novel to date, a book of great depth, tightly written and with a surprise - and so much life - on almost every page. Its main character, Vincent, is one of the author’s vivid working class men who, after a university education, lives a life awash with anger at a world that doesn't allow any real integration between his roots and present life. A professor of racially diverse adult students and a wanderer through London, Vincent begins an emotionally intriguing journey with a woman who lives in the vintage clothes of a past era, the story line following their relationship. The end is determined both by Vincent’s dissatisfactions and by the shock of the brutal, random events of real life. It’s an unusual, gripping book.Meredith Sue Willis, Hamilton Stone Review, USA 2016
I really enjoyed Ken Champion’s latest novel and am still thinking about its characters. It portrays the lives of a small group of contemporary people who have links to the music and fashion re-enactment scenes of the 1940s and ‘50s. He sensitively explores their involvement with them, their connections to each other, and the losses that have shaped them.
Cultural influences, particularly cinematic scenes, are used imaginatively as themes, while class divisions, diversity, and the use of language are sharply observed. Acute insights into the demands and freedom of city life and of academia further make this novel an absorbing read.
This is a writer who pays intense attention to the extraordinary details of ordinary life.Joanna Ezekiel 2016
Ken Champion creates more off-beat characters in contemporary East London where yearnings for the1940’s and 50s loom large. Their personal interactions and the author’s light-hearted touches add to the upheavals and daily routine of their lives. Vincent is a man who has, ostensibly, escaped his working class background and falls in love with a woman who is true to life yet fills his nostalgic desires. Herein lies a whole set of obstacles that halt and propel a storyline of unexpected twists, yet the reader is also given the time to pause with Vincent as he relishes the cityscape, its architecture and cultural settings.
As always, Champion’s descriptive details add lustre to a setting where love and disillusionment flourish. A must-read.Juli Jana 2016
I read a fair amount of fiction and most of the British stuff is clever, elegant and slight. Its miniaturist map takes in comfortably-off urban worlds peopled with journalists, politicians and psychiatrists, eating well, drinking too much and living stylish, if unfulfilled lives in the kind of well-appointed property that keeps the Evening Standard weekly property pull-out pregnant with promise.
When this cosmopolitan literary syllabub becomes just too cloying, and something grittier is called for, I usually turn to crime fiction where meaner streets housing recognisably ordinary people caught up in dark deeds proliferate. A lot of this genre is set ‘up north’, or over the border in Scotland, whose grim, grey, post-industrial landscapes host countless grizzling goings-on for the reader craving more carnivorous pleasure.
Painter turned poet turned prose master Ken Champion’s new novel, NOIR, scores highly for shunning the usual-suspect postcodes and for working outside the thriller format. His preferred manor is one he knows well, the east London mobility belt that sprawls from the low E-number newly hipster postcodes of Tower Hamlets through 1930s suntrap suburbia out into the Essex Badlands. Here, escapees from the old east end populate the seaside bungalows, the now middle-aged new towns and the sedate semi-rural retreats beyond the long-gone scampi-in-a-basket and blue comedian palace of faded celebrity, the Circus Tavern.
His notional backdrop is the tight-knit world of World War 2 nostalgia, whose aficionados travel the country over the summer months in pursuit of vintage fashion, to hear big band sounds and ogle military hardware. Hovering on the fringe of one of these events, social science lecturer, Vincent, divorced, detached, lonely and the kind of meta-analyst more used to appraising a subculture without fully immersing himself in it, chances upon a veiled woman, Gail, who captures his attention, interests and intrigues him.
Over time, he becomes mesmerised, enraptured and obsessed by her, searching her out and fixating on her. Circumstances conspire to throw them together; a relationship develops, escalating in a dizzy whirl until Gail, newly liberated from domestic tragedy, invites Vincent to move out of London to live with her in her remote Victorian cottage on Mersea Island.
All of which might suggest we are in the territory of clever contemporary romantic fiction, of Georgette Heyer being given a makeover by Michel Houellbeq.
We’d be mistaken though, because around about its midpoint, NOIR turns seriously weird. Casting aside any preoccupation with the saccharine conventions of mid-life cohabitation, Champion opts to take a walk on the wild side, charting Vincent’s suffocation in his new rustic setting and his increasing alienation from mainstream cultural values. Like William Foster in ‘Falling Down’, Vincent is an everyman on the edge, angry and insecure in an ill-mannered metropolis defined by rampant consumerism, clamouring for instant, individual gratification in a culture increasingly dominated by a feelings-driven identity agenda now taking on enlightenment values of rational enquiry, science and progress that have prevailed for the last 200 years, and were defining for Vincent’s intellectual generation. Gorging junk food in public, littering, hollering on mobile phones in public, sanctimonious managerialism, the tolerance of intolerance, Vincent rages against them all. What elevates this from the usual shock-jock ranting, though, is his armchair Marxist perspective, marinaded over twenty years teaching sociology in urban colleges, yet stubbornly resistant to any practical engagement, or as he might put it, praxis. An emerging territory of conflicted leftism, usually associated with another renegade social scientist, Frank Furedi and the clever rag-tag contrarians clustered around the online journal, ‘Spiked’.
These are vast, topical themes, edging Champion closer to explicitly political discussion than in any of his previous work, ensuring NOIR enjoys deep currency in a year that has seen alienation and anger on the part of disconnected publics generate upset on both the domestic and international stage.
Wry, raw, restless and risky, NOIR is very much of its time, combining social realism with a dreamlike intensity as a man out of his depth tries to make sense of a world out of control.Chris Connelley, Hastings Independent 2016
There are all the joys of Ken Champion’s writing here – a vivid depiction of time and place created with painterly skill, telling humour, characters both bound by and railing against society’s expectations. This is a world rich and busy with the banter, camaraderie and cruelty of daily life, with painful truths beneath.
At its heart is the story of Ben, coming of age in the East End of the fifties, whose encounter with the adventurous, liberated Beat Years is merely glanced in the pages of Kerouac’s On the Road. His struggle to move beyond the grey predictability and stifling life mapped out for him is shown through his drifting friendship with Johnny who shares his urge to escape and the desire to explore beyond the limits of what’s expected. But both learn that freedom isn't so easy. Chances glide past, becoming the roads not travelled, as Ben’s life is defined by the choices he makes.Kim Lasky 2015
This novella captures coming-to-adulthood in working class London in the mid-twentieth century with gritty accuracy and a moving story of friendship and the effort to live a more intellectual life. Ben and Johnny are young Londoners whose rather stifled education leads them into working as painters and decorators on building sites. Ben, reading philosophy and anything else he can get his hands on and engaged in a long, unhappy battle with his father, is especially caught up by Kerouac's On the Road, which he and Johnny yearn to emulate.
The plot is both profound and familiar – growing up, trying for a life of the mind, making compromises. It is a powerful evocation of the struggle to create a meaningfully examined life through friendship and a passionate engagement with ideas.Meredith Sue Willis, Hamilton Stone Review 2015
In his latest novella, Champion returns to the distinctive territory of family, work and identity as experienced in the aftermath of war in the grim, treeless, rubble-strewn terraced streets of a still mono-cultural east London.
It tells the story of Ben Stevens as he undergoes the rite of passage from boy to man, shedding light on a long lost world of black and white television, rigidly defined gender roles and, most importantly, the suffocating straitjacket of class. This manifests itself in a myriad of ways within and across social classes, from the forelock-tugging fawning sycophancy of Ben’s father (“a man of few skills his instinct told him that to survive he would have to defer”) through to the internalised codes that differentiate the ‘respectable’ from the ‘rough’ working classes and, most starkly, in the seemingly irreconcilable divisions between classes.
Though informed by these serious, timeless, even epic themes, Champion’s descriptive strength comes from his exquisite minituarism and his ability to capture the intimate detail of routine domestic settings. His characterisation is pretty faultless too. Family aside, we get to meet a cast of ‘village irregulars’ like Brilliantined bad boy, Vinny Duggan, Ben’s sensitive cineaste soul-mate Johnny and frustrated crimper turned greasy-spoon owner, Lou. There’s also a lovely cameo of a narcissistic gym master that’s worth the cover price in its own right.
Champion’s stark and sometimes disturbing stories, told often with anger and a dust-dry wit, manage to reach out to the general reader whilst also generating plaudits from critics and peers. And he is not only prolific, he is near as damnit pitch-perfect as he turns in yet another assured narrative that effortlessly snares the reader and draws us into its grainy, lost world.Chris Connelley, Hastings Independent 2015
‘This is a splendid novel of the London Blitz that captures life mostly through the eyes of a bright and creative working class boy. Keith’s knowledge of what’s going on is limited, but his experience leads us deep into a time and place – and the lives of ordinary people – with more power than any history book could convey.'Meredith Sue Willis, Hamilton Stone Review 2015
‘After his widely acclaimed novella, The Dramaturgical Metaphor, an existential thriller which sees psychoanalyst James Kent embark on a dark and disturbing European journey, Champion’s new offering, Keefie, occupies very different territory.
Opening amongst the narrow, grimy, tree-free streets of 1930s East London where his titular hero is growing up and making sense of his world in the run-up to war, Champion brilliantly captures the claustrophobic life of work, traditional gender roles and family amongst the white working class that once dominated these neighbourhoods, deploying his mastery of conversation to powerful effect as he anatomises the rules, restrictions and unspoken resentments of a tightly bounded, long lost world.
He brings a community to life, identifying the subtle inflexions that define, and differentiate, his milieu and the resilience of its womenfolk in unremittingly harsh and uncompromising conditions, and the men whose reductive world revolves around the brittle bonhomie of the pub.
A second narrative, initially located in New York, collides with the first in rural East Anglia which sees a blue collar lecturer on an intellectual journey that probes identity and the inherent contradictions between nature and nurture.
Once again, Champion has produced a clever novel that is both distinctive and profoundly unsettling, exposing the emotional emptiness of both the superficially cheery cockney culture and the loquacious, self-regarding grove of academe. There may be an overwhelming sadness at the core of the story, yet there’s also something decidedly beautiful about the way it is told; shining the tiniest flicker of light into the author’s bomb-ravaged wartime landscape.'Chris Connelley, Hastings Independent 2015
I really enjoyed this novel. Ken brings his flair for vivid description and precise period detail to this authentic story of three characters living through the darkest days of the Second World War in England. There is the talented, loyal Keefie evacuated from London's East End to Norfolk, his kind mother, Ruth, who dreams of a happy family life in the suburbs, and curious New Yorker, Robert, teaching in Norfolk and disregarding the segregation rules of his own country to strike up a friendship with intellectual, privileged Prudence. As Prudence says, 'Normlessness is the norm' in a changing world, and each character's struggle to adapt and survive is sensitively and satisfyingly realised.Joanna Ezekiel 2015
An evocative portrayal of the East End in the run up to the Blitz opens this engaging new novel from Ken Champion.This is a rich depiction of working class life, traditional gender roles, and a family ill at ease with their emotions, showing how small everyday acts map out the confines of a life. Seen through the eyes of Keith, a bright, inquisitive boy trying to understand the world around him, we’re cleverly shown – and crucially able to feel - the subtle influences that set out what’s expected, what constitutes normal. Interspersed with Keith’s London childhood we see American blue collar worker Robert discovering a stimulating intellectual life at university in Brooklyn before taking up a lecturing post in England. The pair’s paths cross when Keith is evacuated to the rural East Anglian farmhouse Robert is sharing with wife Jess and academic Norman.
This is a novel about belonging, which explores contrasts: city and country life; intellectual and emotional knowledge; assumptions of black and white identity. At its heart are three characters all ‘set apart’ in some way: Keith by his creative sensitivity and love of words which sees him bullied at school; Robert transplanted from the Bronx to the Norfolk countryside in his first academic job; and sophisticated African student Prudence, privileged diplomat's daughter studying sociology at a provincial university. Against a backdrop of air raids, bomb damage, and rationing the three discover that the labels we give others in order to classify who they ‘are’ matter far less than the small, human moments we share that create the true connections. With his trademark warm humour, thoughtful characterisation and razor sharp observations Ken Champion has created a story that reminds us that we can’t know others simply by what defines them socially. As Robert discovers, theory is meaningless without lived experience.
This is a thoughtful book, which wears its thinking lightly, privileging the authenticity of characters living through their mistakes, doubts and fears, with a willingness to adapt and to forgive. Champion’s eye for detail and vivid, unsentimental writing suggests rather than lectures. He shows us a crowd forced to shelter in the underground during an air raid unpacking food, bedding down, sharing music and songs; he shows us Prudence’s head leaning on Robert’s shoulder… and we get it. Ultimately, what sets us apart is less important than what brings us together.
This is a lovely story and deserves to be read widely, deserves to be known.Kim Lasky 2015
‘After creating psychoanalyst James Kent as the centrepiece of a compelling series of short stories, Urban Narratives (Penniless Press Publications), Champion now works his descriptive magic on a novella. Whilst notionally subscribing to a thriller format, he has actually produced a highly disciplined novel of ideas more readily associated with the European tradition, reflecting on the nature of identity and the impact of class in a postmodern age. Clever yet elegant, Champion benefits from the taut styling and descriptive precision that derive from his poetry, capturing a sense of time and place that transport us to his host locations, whilst also slightly dislocating our commonsensical assumptions. Think Jean Paul Sartre reimagining Alastair Maclean.
In James Kent, Champion has created a textured and flawed hero, someone who is opinionated, contrarian, vulnerable and humane; and someone definitely deserving of further outings. More please, and soon.’Chris Connelly, Hastings Independent 2014
‘This novella is ostensibly about a psychotherapist’s road trip with a client who has too much money to spend. James, the protagonist, looking for extra cash and something different in his life, accepts the odd offer to 'observe' him in Paris, Rome then back to London.
It’s a gripping ride, hard to capture, but deeply worthwhile to experience.’Meredith Sue Willis, Hamilton Stone Review 2014
‘If you’re expecting to read titles of comparative texts by well known writers littered throughout a tribute to Ken Champion, you are mistaken - he’s not that kind of writer. The author is rare amongst his peers in social and literary relevance for he can present the lost, the mistaken, the sophistication doggedly clung to in despair and bring into being the deepest, unspoken tenderness. Following the psycho-geography of much of Urban Narratives, a story collection whose exploration of themes and ideas are broadened into similarly disturbed planes in The Dramaturgical Metaphor, Champion introduces a protagonist randomly and artfully directing Kundera-esque scenarios across Europe to escape from a damaged ego while searching for an idealised one. This new novel is not only to be admired for style and pace, but to be felt, to be angry at.’Philip Ruthen, Waterloo Press 2014
‘I thank him for gracing our magazine with his literature… his realism is enriched with imagination, the most real of all qualities.’Meredith Sue Willis, Hamilton Stone Review 2014
‘From the poignant first story, ‘Art House,’ and the inventively funny yet sad ‘Verstehen,’ through to the gritty realism of the urban college stories and the often bedevilled clients of a flawed East London analyst, I think his work is amazing.’Sarah Katharina Kayss, TheTransnational Magazine 2014
‘Ken Champion seeks out situations and characters that, though true to life, are different. He describes them with freshness and directness, weaving story lines that flow through settings that have connotations of both the cameo and the epic. The visual descriptions reflect the author’s analytical voice which becomes a unique trademark. It all makes for a great read.’Juli Jana 2014
‘I’ve been a fan of Ken Champion’s work for quite a while now. He writes with empathy and honesty and includes more than a touch of dark humour. The compelling descriptions of urban landscapes ground the restlessness, defiance and unpredictability of the characters and allow him to explore the themes of, amongst others, relationships and death.
‘She in a department store, disappearing, and him, unguarded panicking, intellectually knowing that it was the child in him being left by mummy - no emotions are new.’ (Fracture)
The beauty of a short story is that it doesn’t have to tie up every loose end and several of the stories contain coincidences that leave us wondering. They often contain hard truths.
‘The equation being that if he looked fit and tanned then he wouldn’t age, ergo, wouldn’t die. It was a subject he’d never studied: the psychology of death.' (Lay Preacher)
I’m already looking forward to his next publication.’Joanna Ezekiel 2014
‘A beautifully written and poignant story.’Ronna Wineberg, Bellevue Literary Review 2006
‘In this story Ken Champion provides richly developed characters that contemplate their relationship to Christ, to culture, and to each other. His character, Steve, develops a relationship with a younger, African student, Thandi Mnede. Even when these characters are together, they are worlds apart, Steve’s sense of isolation deriving from his intellectualized disbelief in faith.’Monica K. Mankin, The Literary Magazine Review, University of Wisconsin 2006
‘I found some beautiful writing here…’Susie Reynolds, Chimera 2006
‘I really do like this story. He deals with a potentially melodramatic ending with real elegance and lightness of touch - the last two lines are heartbreaking,’Silkworms Ink 2010