The Ballad of Curly Oswald, by Curly Oswald (who else?) is a coming-of-age tale, told through the eyes of a child growing up in a hippie commune.
We open with a glimpse of Curly’s adult life in the high-end interior design world, catering to the pseudo-spiritual needs of the superficial. The flashy yachts and empty smiles give the impression that this ballad will be a salacious number, but we are immediately derailed by a traffic accident, leading to Curly’s hospitalisation. His near-death experience and sudden isolation inspire him to reflect upon his early life, and that’s where the real story begins.
At the time of his birth, Curly’s mystified mother, Wing, is living in a small community of hippies. Their caravan-park home is set within the grounds of a tolerant British lord, whose motives for allowing the existence of the settlement are left mainly to the reader’s speculation. The group live rent-free, with electrical and plumbing needs catered for, but are otherwise self-sufficient.
The first few chapters are spent fleshing out the characters who occupy ‘Lothlorien’, as they name their encampment, and establishing the code by which they live. Initially some of the characters feel slightly clichéd – talk of meditation and positive auras abound – but as we progress, almost all of the individuals are developed well; their traits, foibles, and histories thoroughly explored, leaving us with no doubt of the author’s affection for each. Apparent oddities, like charismatic leader-of-the-pack Bill, and the terribly refined and cuttingly dry Neat Pete, give layers to the group dynamic. Indeed, by the time real conflict is introduced to the narrative, I could feel my stomach growing tight with anxiety for the continued happiness of this rag-tag bunch of well-meaning misfits.
We accompany them as they face threats from within and without, from love affairs and social services, from depression and angry skinheads. Theirs is a story of the indomitable spirit of friendship, of putting the needs of the many over the needs of the self, in accordance with a shared belief that a better way of life is possible. Their love for their families and friends gives them the strength to stand by their principles. Much of this may seem quaint, and I suppose it is, but as easy as it would be to scorn their naivety, the author’s account is so emotionally visceral that the reader’s support becomes almost unconditional.
Although we are viewing Curly’s experiences through flashbacks from his hospital room, with the benefit of hindsight and an adult’s perspective, the author tells his story with the frank and unblinking eye of Curly the Child. There is much he doesn’t quite understand, as well as some faculties, such as emotional maturity, in which he is advanced for his years. As a result, we are presented with an unflinchingly honest account of the very human pitfalls still hidden within this seemingly idyllic fellowship. There are no real heroes in this story; all of our characters are imperfect, albeit in largely forgivable ways, with the exception of a handful of ‘Outsiders’ who represent the cut-and-dry evils of wider society.
Curly Oswald’s biggest triumph is in creating a story that is true to life. Not just the life of this specific boy, being raised in exceptional circumstances, but the lives of us all. This is most well-realised in Curly’s interactions with the other children in his world; for each scenario and micro-drama which is picked apart and minutely examined, there is another quirk of circumstance that goes entirely unaddressed. When the children are left out of the loop, or a character’s privacy is respected by the rest of the group, the reader is left to ponder the implications just as Curly is – on some occasions, that which we are asked to consider is so daunting it is hard not to feel as a child would: lost and uncertain. While this may appear to contradict my overall opinion of The Ballad of Curly Oswald as a warm and gently humorous tale of an alternative upbringing, exposure to this kind of contrast is the book’s raison d’être; what is life, if not a series of contrasts?
The Ballad of Curly Oswald by Curly Oswald is published by IndieBooks Ltd, available to purchase here.