Fiction - paperback; Friday Fiction; 172 pages; 2007. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
A book set in a public lavatory may not sound terribly salubrious; it may, in fact, sound downright sordid. But Gents is far from the grubby little tale I expected it to be, which is somewhat surprising given that it's a tale about three West Indian janitors working in a central London toilet that is frequented by cottagers.
The story begins with Ezekiel Murphy taking a new job at a subterranean lavatory where the punters must pay to use the facilities. By lunchtime he already realises that some of the customers are using the cubicles for casual sex, a concept which he cannot comprehend. "Why they do it here? Why not somewhere else?" he asks.
His boss, Reynolds, takes a practical view of the situation. "We don't ask why, man. We don't keep their conscience, we only keeping order."
Meanwhile Jason keeps order by putting a big stick under the cubicle door and rattling it about to encourage any "reptiles" to leave.
But while the "reptiles" are harmless in themselves, the attention they attract is not, and before long Reynolds is being ordered by the local council to improve the lavatory's reputation. However, "cleaning out the swamp", isn't as straightforward as one might think...
Gents is a simple story well told. It works on two levels. There's a basic narrative that is entertaining in itself. But the real reason this slim volume -- easily read in one sitting -- hits the spot is its deeper psychological insights into the human character and how our attitudes are shaped by our cultural backgrounds, our experiences and our personality.
Through the relationship between the three protagonists Collins also shows how their response to the problem at hand is coloured by different views and outlooks on life. Even the ways in which Ez, Reynolds and Jason relates to their womenfolk at home reveals much about their individual personalities.
In many ways Gents is a parable about not casting judgement on others, about letting things lie and being careful about what you wish for. It explores many big themes, including homophobia, racism and religion, in such a gentle and subtle prose style that these issues might actually be lost on some readers. But it is the simplicity of the narrative and the things that are left unsaid that make it such an intelligent and humane read. Who would have thought that a tale set in a gents toilet could provide such food for thought! Salubrious indeed.