I had heard so many great things about Will Wiles ‘Care of Wooden Floors’, it seems almost inevitable that I would be left slightly disappointed. There was no way it could possibly live up to my expectations. Having said that, this is still a very impressive debut. It’s a simple tale well told.
Our (unnamed) narrator has travelled to an Eastern European country to flat sit for an old University friend. He and Oskar are chalk and cheese. Oskar is driven; a successful classical musician. The narrator is a failed journalist, a writer of council pamphlets; a man who harbours great dreams but is ill equipped to make them reality. He is to look after the flat whilst Oscar is in LA finalising his divorce. What could be simpler?
Well just about anything it turns out. When our storyteller arrives in the flat, he finds it immaculate. Beautiful bookcases, a grand piano and a modern unblemished kitchen. And then there are the floors. Expensive, perfect and highly polished they are the owner’s pride and joy. There are notes from Oscar all over the flat; reminders and comments to help things to run smoothly. There are detailed instructions on how to look after the floors, but they basically boil down to one thing. ‘Don’t spill anything’. It’s easy to imagine what’s going to happen.
Care of Wooden Floors is like a dark episode of the sitcom Frasier. The story plots a farcical descent, from a minor mishap to, well that would be spoiling things, but just when you can’t imagine matters becoming any worse, they do. The classical music references and the pedantic and retentive notes left by Oskar further the feeling that the novel should somehow involve the Crane brothers. As the novel spirals towards its conclusion it’s impossible to drag your eyes from the page.
The novel is practically a single-hander. There is little character interaction, yet the novel explores the nature of friendship and happiness. The unnamed city and the perfect wooden floors become characters themselves. Through the narrator’s interactions with them, we learn of his fears, his weaknesses and his hopes and dreams. Though he is absent we learn much about Oskar and his obsession with perfection.
Whilst I enjoyed much of CoWF, I wasn’t always convinced. Wiles is a graduate of a creative writing course, and whilst its easy to say ‘it’s easy to tell’, it’s easy to tell. ‘The…dog, an exotic alloy of breeds.’ is a beautifully crafted sentence, but ‘…a fresh cube of tofu swimming in the city’s tetsu broth.’ Is trying way too hard. Having said that, the moments of craft far outweigh the few overblown metaphors.
I wasn’t entirely convinced by the novel’s ending. I can certainly see why some people wouldn’t like it. It’s not so much the openness of the ending, which was unxpected, but I felt the character’s actions didn’t quite fit with what had gone before.
But these are comparatively small things. CoWF is an inventive and original read. Using something as simple and unyielding as a polished wooden floor, Wiles peels away layers of the human psyche, laying bare what lays at the heart of many of us; a wish to be better. This is an accomplished debut from an author who is brimming with talent. I imagine there is a lot more to come.