Something’s movin towards me. Gettin closer. Feelin its way in the dark. It’s took two years. But it’s comin.— John Sissons
John Sissons is working hard to put the events of the past behind him, events that landed him in prison for a seven-year stretch. (Abide With Me) Out for two years, he’s been working at a market stall several days a week selling produce.
When that job dries up, John signs on with a job placement agency that gets him in working at a door factory. It’s dreary, repetitive, soul-crushing work, but twenty-five years old and knowing it’s time to get on with being a man, John sucks it up and sticks things out.
Slowly, things seem to be taking a turn for the better. John settles into the pattern of the work, the money’s coming in, and he even starts dating a young woman who works in the factory office. And then news arrives that changes John’s world forever.
Ronnie Swordfish, the man John’s testimony helped put in jail for murder two years ago, has been killed in prison. John knows that doesn’t mean his problems are over, they’re just beginning. Ronnie was a nasty piece of work, but one who had a circle of friends and family who are incredibly loyal…and who are now equally incredibly pissed off at John.
John may have served his time, but as he soon learns some debts are never really paid.
When readers last saw John Sissons in Abide With Me, the debut novel from Ian Ayris, John was little more than a kid whose world revolved around football (soccer), friends and school, in that order. And though things were always rough and tumble in John’s East London neighborhood of Bethnal Green, John was still, at heart, a kid who looked at the world with a kid’s optimism still intact. Following his time inside and subsequent years scrapping to get by on the outside as the crush of daily existence steamrolls him, that optimism has all but been snuffed out when we meet up with John in April Skies.
His mid-late teens and early twenties having occurred somewhat in a vacuum because of his time in prison, John is in many ways still a man-child struggling to become a man, and doing so in a world where the deck seems stacked against him. As he did in Abide With Me, Ayris once again drops readers into the immersive and atmospheric surroundings of Bethnal Green, complete with the rough-edged vernacular of London’s East End. (Readers easily offended by profanity take this as fair warning: it abounds in this book.) Right from the start Ayris lights the fuse on John, letting his wheel spinning and quiet desperation at his inability to take control of his life progress at a slow burn for the first two-thirds of the story.
Once the news of Ronnie Swordfish’s death drops, however, Ayris douses that fuse in petrol and things heat up fast. First John’s job at the factory takes a bizarre, decidedly not good turn when he’s picked to accompany another worker on a mysterious out of town delivery run, and then his sister, now seventeen and a day-student at university, goes missing. When it becomes clear that the events are not only related to each other but to Ronnie Swordfish’s crew, John knows it’s time once and for all to step up and meet things head-on no matter the outcome. The way it plays out is fast, raw, and not for the faint of heart, as Ayris tackles the ending of April Skies with a brutal efficiency and lack of sentimentality. Which is fitting. John is no longer a boy with boyish dreams, but a man burdened by the demands and vagaries of a world that marches endlessly on without concern for those in it.
Able With Me is one of my all-time favorite reads. Ayris tapped into something special in that book in a way I’ve rarely seen an author pull off. Admittedly, I was extremely curious to see if he could duplicate that in the follow up, and he was concerned about that as well, as he shared in a recent guest post. The fact is, he didn’t duplicate the effort. Despite its rough edges, there was always an underlying innocence and sentimentality present in Abide With Me. That’s gone in April Skies, and with good reason. Neither Ayris nor John are in anywhere near the same headspace as they were when Abide With Me was written. April Skies captures a very different time in John’s life, that final transition from man-child to man, with all the burdens and baggage that comes with it. That necessarily makes April Skies a darker read than Abide With Me, but one every bit as powerful.
Though April Skies can be read on its own without having first read Abide With Me, I highly recommend you read both. Individually they are powerful reads that each captures a specific snapshot in time in the life of a boy/young man. Together they are an astonishing one-two punch of writing that shows the progression of a boy/young man struggling to understand and come to terms with a life he knows is not destined for much, but which he still hopes to make the best of and build what little he can by surrounding himself with the love of family and friends and being the best man he knows how to be.
I admit, as fan of Ayris’s writing I wish we could check in again with John at some point, maybe twenty-five years down the line and see how life’s treated him, whether he ever got out of Bethnal Green, married and had kids of his own, see if his beloved West Ham United ever won again. But if it’s truly time to say goodbye to John, as Ayirs seems to have done, it’s a privilege to have experienced what Ayris and John were willing to share.
April Skies is available from Caffeine Nights Publishing (ISBN: 978-1910720394).