What would Handforth Parish Council be without Jackie Weaver? Read “Work in Progress” and you may well find out. The book has all the quintessential British charm of Bake-Off, except with an anger management problem; every chapter is “FreezerGate”. So many pages brimming with all the awkward British tension of a ‘Come Dine With Me’ episode gone spectacularly awry. The book is fast-paced, witty and definitely one to put on your reading list for 2022.
The action centres around Crawley’s newest writing group, founded by Julia (jet-setting trophy wife and failed actress) and populated by seven other equally flawed and equally entertaining characters, with the book composed of the emails exchanged between them.
After a day of work and sending a million of my own emails, the thought of reading more emails, even in a book format, did not appeal to me. But how wrong I was! The short snappy emails take the pressure out of reading. There is no worrying if you can finish the chapter before your partner turns the light off or having to push yourself through dryer sections. In fact, I even ended up reading it between meetings whilst working, with the Crawley writing group emails infinitely preferable to those in my own inbox. The format of the book, while not traditional, is by no means unique. However, that does not matter. It’s well executed and the perfect way to observe the exquisitely funny false-praise, shoulder-jostling and petty scabbles of the would-be writers.
There’s something very satisfying about reading the sugar-coated exchanges between the group, whether they’re catching a love-cheat in a lie or remarking on the lacklustre vol-o-vents at the last meeting. Woe-betide anyone who thinks twiglets are sufficient for the Crawley Writing Group. They’re the sort of emails you dream about sending to your boss, or perhaps a difficult client, but never quite have the nerve. You can delight in their gentle scandals and embrace the Schadenfreude.
The authors drip feed you information, with each character and email bringing more and more detail and personality to light. From an innocuous email about a lunch time drink, we learn details of two-timing lovers, hails of root vegetables and some very dodgy accents. It plays into your psyche, encouraging you to make assumptions about a character’s age, looks, and motivations, only to flip it on its head, and leaving you cackling with glee.
Through the emails, the characters are represented as caricatures. Julia’s humble brags growing ever more outrageous, Peter’s conceptual art gets ever more meta, and disgruntled civil servant, Jon, starts to seem more and more like a tin-foil-hat-wearing-lunatic. Were this story to be told in the traditional first or third-person format, it would be rather too much on the nose. Trying too hard. As it is though, through the clever narrative structure, jokes are often glanced or hinted at. It tempers the outrageous characters, giving the book more sophistication than you would expect, particularly from a book that deliberately seems to fall into tropes.
Unusually, the book is written by a collective of three authors, Dan Brotzel, Martin Jenkins and Alex Woolf, and it is better for it. Having so many writers may lead you to worry the book would be disjointed and inconsistent, however this feeds into its fundamental structure. Having different writers perhaps helps give the emails written by each character their own character and style. You don’t need to see who the emails are from to know the flowery-worded essay is from Julia darling, any more than to see the simple “Yes” reply is from Jon.
Work In Progress is a great, fun book. It’s light-hearted and will have you in fits of laughter. Whilst it’s not the sort of book I can imagine re-reading time and again, the humour often relies on slight twists, which would be ruined in hind-sight, that does not lessen the enjoyment I had reading it. It’s left-field and quirky, which we need to see more of in the literary world. The fact that it was picked up at all indeed was thanks to their Publishers Unbound, who rely on crowd-funding to help release this sort of unique and independently minded work. I look forward to seeing what Unbound, and Brotzel, Jenkins and Woolf get up to next.
About the reviewer
Jennifer Taylor is a twenty-something reader and art-lover based in London. She knows a thing or two about Kombucha and how to grow avocados. When not forgetting to water her (other) houseplants, she can usually be found with a book in-hand or else generally wishing she had a dog. She (occasionally) tweets at @JenTaylor300 and can be found on Instagram @jennifertaylor12