The Rock of Gibraltar features in the opening paragraph of businessman Robin Hellaby’s debut novel ‘The Last Fandango’ published by Wishful Thinking. The paperback format of the book was launched at Sacarello’s, after the e-book climbed the Amazon charts in just two weeks, at an intimate affair on a cold November evening, when it was also announced that the story is being adapted into a play that literary agent Sandie Lenton Forrest and her team hope to see premiering in the West End as early as this summer.
The shrewd reader of this book will indeed be enticed by the curiosity of learning how the playwright manages to convey within the constraints of a stage the sense of the sky literally being the limit that pervades this book from cover to cover, as the scene changes from a sweltering hilltop North-African village to the Andalusian countryside, from the intricacy of the Alhambra, to the neon of the Glasgow nightclub scene on a crisp January night. Despite a looming sense of foreboding that doesn’t allow the protagonists time to settle down and relax in the lives they’ve chosen for themselves, the story is all but claustrophobic and yet its blurred lines make it hard to pigeonhole it in a single genre, whether romance, adventure, drama or even horror (the shrewd reader will quickly rule out chick-flick, though).
Robin Hellaby (a nom de plume to shield the innocent) is not new to typing, for he is a well-travelled Thailand-based technical translator by profession, but this is his maiden voyage on the rollercoaster of creative writing. The novel is born from the realization that he reached his mid-forties without having truly loved someone, unknowing how to be trusting, giving, compromising. “After a breakup, I started writing down feelings and ideas to achieve some clarity in my grieving process and I soon realised how it was mostly my fault if the relationship failed. My notes collated into a story of romance, passion, prejudice, intrigue, manipulation, deceit, heartbreak, joy, rejection, dejection, and eventually murder, prison, suicide, disability… but most of all, about true love, with no strings attached.”
In fact the novel describes – definitely innovative and bold in this era of pink, fuchsia, purple and every shade of indigo porn publicists can dream of – a decade-long platonic love story that works against all odds, against realistic expectations as well as against bigotry and façades of bourgeois respectability. Of course it isn’t smooth sailing, or the four hundred pages of this tome would have no reason to circulate, but true love conquers all, and for it the church bell tolls.
From carnal infatuation, the protagonist’s sentiments for the young and breathtakingly beautiful wannabe flamenco dancer half his age steadily evolve into a grey area of idealistic love and self-denial that well fit the classic Roman concepts of patronage and adoption, while sexual gratification is sought outside the partnership. Written in first person by a forty-something ordinary English ‘Mister Blister’ (how Robin describes him) who is content with his retiring life in the Almería backlands and cared for by an unrequited and proudly discreet governess and her brother, the story starts at the turn of the Millennium with an airplane trip across the Strait of Gibraltar to reach a fictitious city-state located somewhere in an Arabic country that could be Morocco, Algeria or even Egypt, according to the author. This detail raises the question with the reader about why one should cross the straits to travel from Almería to Algeria rather than flying or crossing by ferry from Malaga, but they will gladly accept the poetic licence that allows sneaking Gibraltar in the mix. If it wasn’t clearly stated on Page One that the year is 1999, you would be forgiven for assuming it is at least a century earlier, not withstanding airplane tickets and mobile phones, for the international settlement is being trapped in Victorian censorship that condones and encourages arbitrary interventions against alleged debauchery purported behind closed doors.
The main characters are a fellowship of British, middle-aged, rich and powerful men who seem to live by Grecian pederasty rules, in their pursuit of barely overage lovers, the more exotic the better, usually bisexual and actually pledged to stable heterosexual relationships, just to save appearances. To some readers, this breezy conscious coupling and uncoupling may ring unrealistic, with all caution and political correctness thrown to the wind despite the efforts of the ‘Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence’ handing out condoms at shindigs, yet it discloses the insider’s point of view on homosexual relationships in the run-up decade to same-sex marriage legalisation.
Women in speaking roles are few and far between and their emotional depths are regrettably left unexplored, even when they are pivotal to the action, like calligraphic wallflower Beth who morphs from moody rebel teenager to taciturn efficient hotel manager, to support the object of her childhood friendship, puppy love and unconditional adult devotion, or the ginger-haired Junoesque landlady who comes across more as libertine than liberated in her cougar prowess with sub-Saharan escapees. Other females are cold and calculating, like the French Madagascan cynic gold-digger (an atavistic antipathy for ‘les frogs’ slithers through the pages), or busybodies on a mission who can either make it or break it for the protagonist like the larger-than-life ex-schoolgirl lesbian who, despite meaning well and dispensing sensible advice, still sounds pushy and insolent; or the petite, taciturn prim-and-proper military wife and piano teacher who seals the protagonists’ destiny through one gossipy slip of the tongue. Village life is kept together by the monolithic presence of a nonagenarian Scandinavian virago, ex spy and ex war hero, rumour has it, and honorary lifelong chief, who could comfortably be a man and nobody would ever spot the difference (her official title is Headman and her voice modulates on baritone, after all!), later revealed to be the key to somewhat restoring the status quo after one storm in a teacup spiralled into life-shattering tsunami.
Alex, meant to be just the tragic catalyst for the decisive encounter between Peter and his cocky (in more than one way) protégé, stays etched in our minds as the one who got away, the right lover for a balanced pursuit of happiness. Of course drama-prone Peter wouldn’t settle for the easy road to his twilight years, and opts for silencing his frustrated fatherhood wailings by letting himself being used by a salacious, capricious, ambitious prima-donna escaping paternal intransigence with the spectacular leap of faith that only fandango can allow.
A nod to Aestheticism runs throughout the narrative, carried out in feuilleton fashion, especially in the descriptions of choral scenes of bereavement or amusement, like the Scottish funeral shortly followed by Scottish clubbing. Stylistically, the account is delivered through plenty of dialogue that sometimes mirrors lilts and bilingualism; however, emotions and thoughts are mostly expressed verbally, with the mature characters as articulate as news anchors and the young punctuating their serrated rhythm with interjections and exclamation marks, while the description of non-verbal communication is minimal and relegated to the dance floor, where a torrent of emotions pours out the heel-stomping frenzy. Figures of speech are sprinkled eclectically in the level-headed syntax, to originate atmospheric turns of phrase like ‘the only cloud hanging over our relationship had the distinct outlines of an erect male organ’.
Despite a few faux-pas, such as the uncalled-for racist stab at Romanians, and the maladroit turn of a Scottish wake into farce, ‘The last Fandango’ makes enjoyable escapism and indeed deserves its dignified place in rainbow heart literature.
Visit TheLastFandango.com to purchase your paperback or e-book copy. Paperbacks are also stocked in Gibraltar and Sabinillas, priced £12.99 or €15.