It seems apt to begin a review of a ‘Catholic novel’ with a confession of sorts – I read Brighton Rock for the very first time shortly after picking it to profile for Book Drum. And yet in a matter of weeks it has become something of an obsession.
Any book set in the place you live is bound to hold a certain exclusive appeal for a reader, but I didn’t expect to be picturing Pinkie nursing a grapefruit squash whenever entering a pub, or looking out for Ida buying oysters from a seafood stand down at the beach. Such is the power of this one small paperback, a story which lingers in your thoughts long after being set down.
One of the most compelling aspects of the novel is that you are never exactly sure who you should be rooting for, if anyone. Despite his ruthless behaviour and sour countenance, it is difficult not to have some sort of sympathy for Pinkie, a confused and deeply lonely soul. And it is impossible not to become fascinated by his internal struggle and his skewed interpretation of Catholicism; up until the final devastating scenes, there are hints at the possibility of redemption, and even a chance of finding peace through his marriage to Rose, despite his unworthy motivation.
Rose's blinking, doe-eyed acceptance of Pinkie remains open to interpretation throughout the novel. Does she see him for what he is? Does she really not care? And if not, why not?
Ida, a heroine in principle, is also flawed. She is unshakeable in her conviction that she knows best, despite any evidence to the contrary. Should she leave well alone?
There are no easy answers in Brighton Rock. In fact there are very few answers at all. Perhaps this explains its enduring popularity and its ability to inspire fresh interpretation, two film adaptations, a radio drama and a musical, as well as countless references in popular culture.
Although some critics have remarked that the setting of the novel could be any British seaside town, Greene evidently loved the place he was writing about, and anybody who knows Brighton can picture exactly where or what he means, from the ‘vast shadow of the viaduct’ to the 'pale green domes of the Pavilion'. Even today, it is a city with a sometimes slippery grasp on morality. This makes it the perfect backdrop for both a noir thriller, and an exploration of the nature of sin.
"Why does this bleak, seething and anarchic novel still resonate? Its energy and power is that of the rebellious adolescent, foreshadowing the rise of the cult of youth in the latter part of the 20th century" - Sophia Martelli, The Observer
"Greene's sacred-and-profane brand of Catholicism has since gone out of fashion but it gives his underworld tale added depth." Leslie McDowell, The Independent