Examining what it means to grow old – gracefully or otherwise: Clare Conville on John Niven’s The Sunshine Cruise Company

John NivenJohn Niven is a fiendishly funny novelist who I have admired ever since I read his first book Kill Your Friends, a brilliant satire on the music industry’s greed and excesses. I recognised in him a writer unafraid to examine the sordid side of human nature, but who did so in beautiful, clean prose which made me laugh – a lot. His dark, intelligent and often unbearably funny sense of humour is present in each of his subsequent novels, including his most recent book Straight White Male which takes on the worlds of publishing, film and academia. The protagonists of both these books bear some resemblance to John, who started out as an A&R man for a record label and has worked as a screen writer in Hollywood, and you felt that he was writing from experience. This was perhaps why The Sunshine Cruise Company was such an unexpected delight. I knew when I opened the manuscript that it would be deeply funny but I didn’t think that it would be about two sixty-year old women who rob a bank in Dorset.

The novel tells the story Susan Frobisher and Julia Wickham who live in a small suburban town and lead mostly unexceptional lives. Susan is married to ‘boring’ Barry, a seemingly bland accountant, and Julia works in an old people’s home, mopping up piss and wondering what has happened to her life. But their worlds change dramatically when Susan is told that Barry has been found dead and discovers the nature of his demise which involves a sex dungeon and Barry’s enthusiasm for massively over-sized dildos. It turns out that he has maintained a double-life as a swinger and re-mortgaged the house many times to pay for his fun.

And so the two decide to rob their local building society, along with Ethel, a gin-soaked, sex-crazed, swearing octogenarian and ‘Nails’, an elderly East End ex-convict (a ‘facking fossil’ in his own words). Despite the thieves collective age, the heist is a success and the gang minus Nails who loses his memory during the raid escape to France pursued by two English policeman. At each stage of their flight south the policemen, Detective Constable Wesley and Detective Sergeant Boscombe, display their remarkable incompetence and ability to wreck any hope of catching the criminals, who themselves are clearly not expert crooks. Slow-paced car chases, embarrassing encounters with the French police and dodgy dealing in a night club named Le Punisher ensue as the aging gang smoke, swear, drink and shop their way through France en route – they hope – to South America. I won’t reveal the events of the final chapters but they are a thrilling and hilarious in equal measure.

The Sunshine Cruise Company is a raucous caper which feels something like an Ealing Studios comedy updated to the world of internet pornography. It takes the reader into new territory for Niven but retains his unmistakable irreverence, style and wit. He takes stock-in-trade English tropes – suburban life, hapless cops, tea and gin – and inflects them with his own particular brand of bawdy and irrepressible humour, whilst also examining what it means to grow old – gracefully or otherwise. It is without doubt one of the funniest novels you will read this year.

The Sunshine Cruise Company by John Niven will be published tomorrow by William Heinemann. We have two copies to give away on Twitter. You can follow John on Twitter at @NivenJ1, and Clare at @C_Conville

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