Book Review: Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (1938)

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Release: 1938
Happy new year! To start off my project for the year, 35 novels from 35 countries, I have chosen Brighton Rock by Graham Greene. I’m getting the UK finished early, but this is because I happened to get the novel as a Christmas present. I was excited to dive in as this was also my first Graham Greene novel. I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. Brighton Rock isn’t the first novel you think of when you hear Graham Greene; many people think of The Quiet American or The End of the Affair. Still, Brighton Rock was chosen. Having once traveled to Brighton in the early days of my relationship, it seemed like a fitting gift from my girlfriend (a Graham Greene enthusiast) and a fitting start to this years project.

The first thing I noticed was Greene‘s ability to develop characters with hardly a word spoken. He had a talent for simplicity and the ability to speak clearly through what is left unsaid. The characters of Ida, Pinkie, and Rose materialize from almost nothing. I find that without much imaginative work I can picture them as real people wandering the Brighton Boardwalk back in the 30’s. Pinkie, being a young new leader of a Brighton gang, is chilling. His distaste for everyone and his unwillingness to communicate present an image of a rebellious and highly unstable youth. He screams self doubt, and at the same time violent ambition. He is the reverse image of the experienced and confident Ida Arnold. Ida is just as ambitious, but calmly and kindly so. Pinkie’s reckless hunger for control puts him up against the tenacious rival of Ida Arnold. Both are flung into the story by Pinkie’s misdeeds. One out of fear and a desire for power and another out of kindness and general decency. Rose is the simple, well meaning girl caught in the middle. She desires so strongly to accept Pinkie that she turns a blind eye to his behavior and the pleading of others around her. Both Ida and Pinkie know the way the Brighton world works, and Rose is just the naive girl swept up in it by accident.

The story jumps back and forth between these characters, focusing on Pinkies attempts to cover his tracks, and Ida’s pursuit. Rose develops as a bond that connects the characters. Pinkie is willing to kill to get his way, but what seems to be a major theme in the novel is that violence begets violence. For every act of wanton cruelty that Pinkie inflicts on the world, he pushes himself closer to the precipice; closer to discovery. There is irony in Pinkie killing to protect the secret of who he has killed previously. He kills to hide killing, but only creates a vicious cycle and trail of bodies that even Rose struggles to ignore. All three rush to a conclusion that comes with subtle yet surprising brutality; the most brutal of which is understood but left unseen.

Overall it feels as though the story was building to an extraordinary conclusion, but it is left simple. It ends with surprising satisfaction, many would say it fell flat, but I would say it accurately reflects that these incidences were not at the front and center of the Brighton world. The actions of the novel were the actions of the underworld, done in the shadows and left in the shadows at the close. It presents the impact of positive forces (Ida), negative forces (Pinkie) and neutral forces (Rose) with all the power to sway the balance. I was left devastated and in love with how the simple style walked hand and hand with brutality and came to close without me ever doubting whether or not any of it was possible. I look forward to my next Graham Greene novel. I’ll be happy if it’s half as good as my first. I’d give it 5 out of 5 stars.

35 Novels From 35 Countries

  1. Brighton Rock by Graham Greene (United Kingdom)
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