The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles, by Jim Keeble
Jim Keeble’s third novel tells the story of Julius Miles, a professional Statistician working for the NHS at Royal London Hospital, who hides behind numbers to avoid the complexities of human relationships. Julius is a largely-built rather awkward man who takes comfort in mathematics, seeing numbers as a refuge from the ‘confusing, tumultuous, usually hurtful world of human interaction’. He finds great satisfaction in deciphering order from chaos, relying on the clarity and absoluteness of numbers. A somewhat cowardly gentle giant, Julius has built up his defences and locked himself into long-term loneliness.
The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles is narrated by Felicity, a transsexual cupid who is determined to find Julius love. ‘Don’t be surprised that I’m transsexual,’ Felicity tells the reader. ‘Us cupids are nearly always transsexual. The job description requires intimate knowledge of both sexes.’
Felicity, previously known as Kevin, is drawn to Julius as a lonely soul in need. She seems to have an intimate knowledge of Julius, even access to his thoughts and memories at times. Felicity follows Julius, as he goes about his familiar routines, sussing out possible love matches from those around him in a style resembling a snooping private detective rather than a minor god. The story appears to be an unconventional romance, but the plot soon takes a very different turn.
When Julius finds his next-door neighbour dead, Felicity has to rethink her plans. Daisy Perkins had been a good possible match for Julius, but now a bigger mystery than love is of concern. Despite a verdict of ‘accidental death’, Felicity sets out to find out who killed Daisy and why.
The storyline of The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles goes in all sorts of unexpected directions, and has some very funny as well as some rather dark moments. A vast range of characters appear and disappear throughout the book, and their swift entrances and exits can become a little perplexing. Some characters that seem incidental can suddenly become pivotal to the plot, while some individuals are barely introduced before disappearing again into the crowded urban background. Julius remains the constant main character, with Felicity always hovering at the margins, an unseen presence watching over him.
But the one character that stands out the most is that of the city itself. Jim Keeble vividly portrays London, and particularly the East End, in all its amazing, grimy, magnificent detail. Descriptions of settings can risk appearing laboured, but Keeble effortlessly breathes life into the city streets with his words, depicting the relentless activity and huge diversity of its inhabitants.
As a resident of London’s East End himself, Keeble’s deep familiarity with the area comes through intensely in his writing, creating vibrant images in the reader’s mind: ‘Heavy East London summer rain, tight fists pelt battered streets, shapes under umbrellas dashing through sputtering puddles, cars scything leaden pools of dirty water, crunch of spray. Low dark sky, all the latent anger of tower blocks and bedsits and rusted cars and garbage and broken dreams boiling upwards from the hot concrete. It’s thirty-two degrees Celsius and police helicopters churn the skies.’
With an inventive plot, original characters and an exceptionally well-drawn setting, The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles is an absorbing read about breaking out of the cycle of unhappiness to arrive at a happy number.