Sophie Soar reviews the witty novel ‘Starter for Ten’ by the bestselling author David Nicholls and tells you just why she’s glad that protagonist Brian Jackson isn’t her flatmate
With the largest student population in Europe, Manchester welcomes an influx of first years every September. Most are a mixture of nerves and excitement, and pretty ignorant. Many of us have been there: mastery of small talk commences and you find yourself repeating your life in a nutshell twenty times a day to people you’ll never see again. E4’s ‘Fresh Meat’ captures the comical stereotypes of the freshman student, providing hilarious anecdotes due to their exaggerated lifestyle. Beginning at a fictional university in Manchester leads them to excel in alienation, awkwardness and stupidity. Mostly, the plot makes for an unbelievable yet addictive show.
David Nicholl’s ‘Starter for Ten’, on the other hand, explores a much more plausible presentation of the alienation, awkwardness and stupidity you get at university with Brian Jackson, a gawky teen from Southend in Essex. I finished this novel the week before I arrived as a fresher myself, feeling as though I was walking straight into a spider’s nest. It was like watching ‘Snakes on a Plane’ before a thirteen hour flight or ‘Titanic’ whilst on a cruise across the Pacific. Unlike ‘Fresh Meat’ and Tom Vaughan’s film adaptation starring James McAvoy, Nicholls’ first person narrative allows us to have an insight into the inner workings of Jackson’s mind. It continuously unveils the uncomfortable events of his journey with the all too omnipresent painful ignorance that, whilst witty, will leave you dumbstruck by his actions.
Jackson moves from Southend at the start of the novel, leaving his two best friends and mother behind to start a new life and reinvent himself at an unnamed university. His hopes and dreams of dating a beautiful girl, reading poetry by moonlight and appearing on ‘University Challenge’ all fall into place. The first person narrative however, unveils his inability to recognise his ridiculousness in achieving these goals. Alice Harbinson soon becomes the centre of his attention and the more he tries to win her over, the further we see her recoil from his advances yet he still remains frustratingly unaware. The further he falls under her spell, the more often you find yourself putting down your book, turning off the kindle or pausing the film for a moment of relief before you are compelled to resume with complete awe at his absurdity. Nicholls effectively and superbly encapsulates the infatuations of a young man who is simply clueless about women.
Although naïve about women, you are lead to hope Jackson’s participation in ‘University Challenge’ will unravel relatively safely as he is presented from the start as a general knowledge genius. The combination of the pompous team leader Patrick, his love interest Alice and the dream of winning due to his familial connections to the quiz show inevitably result in further disaster.
Throughout the novel, a scene reoccurs in which characters comment on his makeshift “futon” on the floor of his bedroom. For me, this scene summarises the tragic hero as he insists on its originality and ignores their insults—the futon remains throughout the novel. It serves as a metaphor for his consistent ignorance; it is undoubtedly this total lack of awareness that will make you cringe and squirm, laughing aloud in amazement as his life unfurls. Nicholls delivers with each chapter a new salt to his wounds, yet Jackson remains entirely oblivious to the damage done. A laugh from cover to cover, ‘Starter for Ten’ is a novel that will have you giggling on the bus to uni thanking your lucky stars that Brian Jackson is not the flatmate living three doors down your corridor.