The Reacher Guy by Heather Martin

The Reacher Guy by Heather Martin

The subjects of literary biographies, by and large, are both widely revered and safely dead. There’s no great mystery in this. Chunky biographies are a seasonal phenomenon, among the dependable unit-shifters that can hold their own in the pre-Christmas big leagues. And the consensus seems to be that – unlike, say, footballers or former commandos – most living writers just aren’t box office material.

There are exceptions, of course, and at first glance it might seem inevitable that Lee Child should make the cut. He’s long been a celebrity writer, a very different breed from celebrities who’ve written books. But as Heather Martin’s title suggests, that’s not what makes him truly interesting. Lee Child created Jack Reacher, a character of such gigantic appeal that even this A-list author remains in his shadow. And to invent Reacher, Lee Child first had to invent himself.

The Reacher Guy is published by Constable

James Dover Grant, or Jim to all who remember him, was born in Coventry in 1954. But it is to Birmingham that he holds allegiance, having moved there with his stolidly middle class parents at the age of four. As Martin shows, this tribal loyalty is deeply felt. He remains a passionate Villa fan, naming a roster of Reacher characters for select former players, and he identified deeply with the city’s artisanal traditions. ‘They really knew how to make stuff back then,’ he remarks. His example is a perfect custom-made bolt, turned out in half an hour by a local craftsman, but it was a virtue he would come to prize in other forms.

But his origins became the subject of mythmaking too, a theme that recurs in this warm-hearted but meticulous study. Lee Child’s IMDb entry, as Martin observes, strikes a more stylised note: ‘[He] was born…in the heart of the industrial badlands. Never saw a tree until he was twelve.’ Unsurprisingly, this is a bit of a stretch – the Grant family home was on Underwood Road, ‘a broad treelined street’ – but the Lee Child brand wasn’t entirely a later invention. Like him, the young Jim Grant knew a thing or two about packaging and selling himself.

Martin shares the recollections of a former teacher, who recalls Jim fondly (they shared a love of theatre), but who was wise to his capacity for shapeshifting. He was ‘a slippery, shadowy figure’, the teacher confides, but the image he projected was a product of ‘unusual sensitivity’. It was a sensitivity that made him susceptible to slights, not least by the parents he remembers as ‘cold and unloving’.

More than anything, though, Jim’s sensitivity made him clear-eyed about his surroundings. Electrified by the early Beatles singles, he watches them storm America and a fiery ambition took hold. ‘Four guys had escaped,’ he later wrote, ‘in the biggest possible way’.

The first step was a job in television, where his now fully formed swagger proved an asset. ‘Look no further,’ his application read. ‘I’m your man.’ He was, as it turned out, and if his boozy and swashbuckling days at Granada yield relatively few salacious anecdotes, they are not without standout moments. In one such episode, we see the young Turk face down a senior manager who orders him to transmit the one o’clock news. It was a non-union production and his NUJ colleagues were in a dispute with the bosses. Jim refused. That he was quickly reinstated following his subsequent firing made his stand no less ballsy and principled. Reacher himself would surely have approved.

But the choicest insights, at least for fans of the novels, are those that shed light on aspects of craft. This too is central to the much-burnished public persona, and for believers it is now an article of faith that he writes only one draft and disdains all forms of planning. It’s a legend the seasoned practitioner may well have grown into, but the young novice laboured towards perfection like anyone else. Over two riveting pages, we see him honing the opening lines of what would become Killing Floor. He junks the unpromising first attempt entirely, and it takes five or six iterations before he gets to the two indispensable sentences that now seem graven in stone: ‘I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock.’

Martin is a clearly a fan – who isn’t? – but the scholar in her keeps those impulses in check. Her archival diligence – and an obvious rapport with her subject – allow her to gently puncture the Child mythos when needed. But scholars are close readers, too, and she is just as good at combing the text for telling quotes, for traces of Child in Reacher; for traces anywhere of the hulking but vulnerable boy that Jim once was. She is a skilled and audacious interlocutor, too, but her subject is just as adept an interviewee. He is unfailingly suave and frequently beguiling, but forthright only in his pronouncements on others. Even his moments of candour can seem precision-engineered. Still, a few are starkly affecting. ‘I was looking for love,’ he confides, by way of accounting for his chosen path. The superhuman Reacher may be loved by millions, but it’s the Reacher Guy who has the edge: He knows what is to be human.

This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

The Dollmaker by Nina Allan

This review originally appeared in The Guardian.

Dolls in popular culture haven’t done themselves any favours. They’re battling an image problem. In the best case scenario, a discarded doll might end up on the cover of a crime paperback, a drab emblem of sullied innocence; in the worst, as in Chucky’s case, it will terrorise an entire town. To collect antique dolls, as the protagonists of this novel do, is to be seen through a glacial mass of cultural prejudice. What, we are inclined to wonder, does anyone see in them?

An only child born with proportionate dwarfism, Andrew Garvie resigns himself at an early age to exclusion and solitude, exchanging schoolyard taunts for dismal office ‘banter’. ‘There is no point,’ he concludes, ‘in even trying to belong’. He devotes himself instead to dolls, at first as an avid collector, then as dollmaker in his own right. He haunts auction houses and scours even the personal pages of specialist periodicals. It is here that he first encounters Bramber Winters.

The Dollmaker (Riverrun, £14.99)

It is here, too, that we enter the lives of dolls, but relax – it’s not what you think. Nina Allan has been known until now for her speculative fiction, but The Dollmaker is not concerned with the supernatural, at least in the usual sense. This literary experiment has a conventional setting, in a contemporary England that feels only slightly askew. The good news is that its living dolls are kept within safely figurative bounds, avatars of the exotic in a moving fable of otherness. The bad news, at least for some, is that they are every bit as unsettling as tradition requires.

Fittingly, given its subject, The Dollmaker toys with us almost from the start. It is framed by an oddball quest narrative, set in motion when Andrew replies to Bramber’s personal ad and the two begin a stilted but consuming correspondence. She is seeking information about a Polish writer and dollmaker named Ewa Chaplin, whose work has obsessed her since childhood. ‘She seemed to know,’ Bramber writes, ‘that dolls are people just like us.’

Andrew, it must be said, is a somewhat unreliable narrator, and at times resembles a peculiarly guileless stalker. ‘I had been writing to Bramber for a year,’ he says, ‘before I understood that we were destined to be together.’ This, we suspect, will come as a surprise to Bramber, whose own intentions are so far opaque. In her oddly ingenuous letters, she reminisces freely about her youth but is reticent about her present circumstances. Still, her hints are broad enough for the reader (suggesting an institional existence in a small Cornish village) if not for Andrew, who assumes that she simply dislikes using the telephone.

Without announcing his intentions, therefore, he resolves to visit her, embarking on the bumbling odyssey that gives the novel its conventional momentum. Its imaginative energy, though, unfolds unexpectedly from within, as if from a series of opulent music boxes.

Andrew sets out for the West Country, pursuing his romantic destiny with the stolid meticulousness of a loveless scoutmaster. His reasonably priced rover ticket, he notes with satisfaction, will enable him ‘to switch freely between bus, coach and train’ as his itinerary demands. To pass the time on the journey, he begins reading the Ewa Chaplin stories to which Bramber is devoted. And here the mechanism quickens, setting its mirrors in motion.

The stories are modern fairy tales, in the macabre and claustrophobic tradition of Angela Carter, and are richly veined with myth and folklore. Their settings are half-recognisable – a twilit Mittereuropa, a London overshadowed by fascism – and their recurring motifs seem come to seem foreboding. There is disfigurement and banishment, jealousy and thwarted triumph. And there is a more persistent theme, familiar from the Schubert lied: the doomed love of a wilful queen for her court dwarf. Here, as in the ballad, he is a figure not of ridicule but of enigmatic potency, who destroys the queen because he cannot possess her. Dolls are people, it seems, but perhaps not quite like us.

Andrew grows bolder as his encounter with Bramber approaches. When he steals a coveted doll from a museum, he glimpses another self, a ‘dark and forbidden’ desire. Will the dwarf destroy his beloved queen? Or are he and Bramber still free to choose other fates? The Dollmaker purports to be ‘a love story about becoming real’, and perhaps it is, in its sad and mischievous way. But it is a story, too, about becoming unreal, about what we choose to see, even in dolls, when we ourselves have gone for too long unseen. Who will love us, after all, if not people just like us?

The Heavens by Sandra Newman

This review originally appeared in The Irish Times.

When Kate and Ben first meet, all is not just well with the world but extravagantly well. It is the year 2000, but rebooted, ‘a year when you opened the newspaper like opening a gift’. Here the president is an Asian-American woman; carbon emissions are in decline; there is peace in the Middle East. They fall in love extravagantly too, quoting from Apollinaire as they ascend to a Manhattan roof garden. Gazing at Kate as she sleeps, Ben is ‘in her absolute and permanent thrall’.

In these utopian scenes, and throughout Sandra Newman’s new novel, there is an exquisitely calibrated strangeness. We confront both a recognisable New York, where wealthy socialites cultivate bohemian darlings, and a counterfactual fairyland, outlandishly benign but expertly tricked out. It’s plausible, just about. And it’s heartbreaking. Because here in 2019, opening the newspaper is like abseiling into the Ninth Circle. We can’t deal with this right now. We all have anxiety.

A view of Times Square from 42nd Street (photograph © Paraic O’Donnell, 2017)

Luckily, everything is about to get worse, not least for Kate and Ben. Their first hours together are heady and rapturous, yet even as they recline on their balcony, there are faint intimations. The night sky is occluded, leaving them to sigh beneath ‘obsolete stars’. It’s a beautiful aside, but for lovers probably not a great sign. Worse than star-crossed, they are starless. The heavens are deserted.

Oh, and Kate has a question. ‘Do you remember your dreams?’ she says.

Dreams, it turns out, are kind of a thing with Kate. Among her friends it’s a running joke. She has learned to be circumspect. But they’re serious, these dreams. They’re important somehow. In her dreams, she is somewhere else, somewhere unaccountably familiar. But it’s not just that. She is someone else. ‘She knew the bed, the house, the great city. But it wasn’t Kate who knew them. It was the person she was sleeping as.’ In love, her dreams intensify. Within them she awakens, or someone does. We glimpse this person, in passages of miraculously skilful exposition, recognisably, then unmistakably.

Emilia Bassano (later Lanier), was England’s first published woman poet. By some accounts the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets, she has long been the subject of scholarly tussling. Here she chews up the pages. Thwarted prodigy and reluctant courtesan, she is subtle, guileful and fiercely alive. It is 1593, a plague year, and London’s courtiers are in exile. Emilia takes refuge at Cowdray, seat of the Earl of Southhampton (himself the ‘fair youth’ of the sonnets) and a household humid with intrigue. As the mistress of the Lord Chamberlain, she is courted by players in want of patronage. Among these is ‘Sad Will’, a lugubrious striver with a handful of plays to his name. Guess who.

If Newman treats Tudor England like she owns the place, it’s because she evidently does.

Readers are often impatient with dream sequences, expecting six or seven pages of portentous italics that need not detain them. Emilia’s sections are no mere distractions, but form a glittering centrepiece which, as an exercise in historical fiction, could easily have stood alone. Newman has business elsewhere, but if she treats Tudor England like she owns the place, it’s because she evidently does. She is simply unerring, deeply read and possessed of a phenomenal ear for diction. She is judicious, though, and sparing with her prithees. The loveliest passages have an unmannered grace, as when Emilia joins a hunt, ‘her heart stooping as the hawk stooped and arrowed from the sky to pluck a fleeing hare’.

But Emilia’s life is not just immersively real, it is vastly consequential. At Cowdray, she and Sad Will chafe at their enforced idleness, exchanging barbs and sneaking away for trysts. He longs for London, where his stage stands empty, but Emilia is troubled by the prospect. A vision recurs. She sees a dead world, ‘a burnt Manhattan, its abandoned towers scabbed with dirt and ice’.

There is something she must do.

In a celebrated story from 1952, Ray Bradbury imagined a time traveller who crushes a butterfly in the Cretaceous period and returns to find a fascist occupying the White House. Like that could ever happen. At first Emilia’s interventions have subtle repercussions – Kate wakes to ‘anomalies, discrepancies, attacks of jamais vu’ – but then things get worse. Much worse. As the catastrophes pile up, Kate is still anxiously checking whether people have heard of Shakespeare. The thing with Kate, at this point, is that she seems to be nuts.

We get it, though. Kate is all of us. How can people be burning oil still? How can that guy be president? The calamities of our age, in this novel, are also an intricate drama of moral philosophy. Like all dramas, it has a resolution, and one of such eye-popping metaphysical grandeur that I couldn’t spoil it even if I wanted to. The Heavens consoles us with the magnificence of our capacities, but in the end it leaves us in no doubt. Sure, we are such stuff as dreams are made on, but it doesn’t look good for the great globe itself.

A Keeper by Graham Norton

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Elizabeth Keane, who occupies centre stage in Graham Norton’s new novel, is ‘a lecturer in Romantic poetry living in a tiny rented apartment’ in New York. We know this because Elizabeth thinks it to herself, in an opening chapter consisting almost entirely of similar ruminations. Exposition of this kind is one of the chores that the novelist must get on with, and if it is done discreetly the reader hardly notices. Norton dispenses with these niceties, issuing us instead with a sizeable information pack. We learn, for instance, that Elizabeth is recently divorced, that her mother’s death has occasioned her return to Ireland and that she dislikes Christmas.

And there is more to come. When Elizabeth admits herself to the now-deserted family home, she has hardly climbed the stairs before the revelations begin tumbling out. Encountering a mirror, she takes stock of her facial features as if encountering them for the first time, a practice popular among male writers if not among actual women. But it is when Elizabeth discovers a cache of her mother’s correspondence that the fruit machine starts to pay out in earnest.

Image result for a keeper

At this point, a parallel narrative is introduced, and one whose elements are in some ways familiar. Forty years in the past, we encounter Elizabeth’s mother, Patricia, whose own mother has died following a long illness. Released after years of dutiful servitude, Patricia resolves to seek out the romantic fulfilment she has denied herself for so long. Again, a great many particulars are supplied early on, and although there is plenty to pick over in this trove of family history, it is not at all clear what we ought to make of it.

Much of the difficulty is due to this novel’s tone, which from the outset veers between melodrama (as when Elizabeth consigns her mother’s letters to ‘the dusty oblivion of the box’) and fizzy bonhomie (‘“Kilkenny!” she cried as if it was Gaelic for Eureka.’). A Keeper, according to its cover blurb, is ‘a twisted tale of secrets and ill-fated loves’, and while unpleasant surprises are indeed in store (we will return to those shortly), we are never quite sure whether to laugh or cry.

There is no need for a character’s behaviour to be relatable, but it must at the very least be comprehensible.

This is especially true of the chapters set in the present. Elizabeth, we are given to understand, finds her hometown oppressive and her extended family unendurable, yet when she visits an aunt to probe the mysteries of the past, her excitability begins to seem almost pathological. She is, we are a told, ‘a pinball machine of emotion’, and perhaps this explains why she keeps giving ‘wry or ‘silly’ grins, even as she receives worrying news from home (her seventeen-year-old son has gone missing) and uncovers ever murkier episodes from her family’s past. The problem, though, is not just that these outbursts are jarring, it’s that they are entirely disconnected, both from each other and from the events unfolding around her. There is no need for a character’s behaviour to be relatable, but it must at the very least be comprehensible.

Back in the past, meanwhile, there are more pressing concerns. Resorting to a lonely hearts ad, Patricia has attracted a suitor and finds herself stirred by the fulsome tenderness of his correspondence. In person, however, Edward Foley turns out to be a near-wordless bachelor farmer who wanders off during moments of intimacy to see about the milking. (On one such occasion, Patricia wonders if ‘it had been her modest bosom that prompted him to seek out the heaving udders in the milking parlour’, an aside of such hallucinatory crassness that it seems almost to shimmer on the page.) Edward’s mother, meanwhile, is forever boiling hams or throttling chickens in mid-conversation, and it comes as no surprise when Patricia returns home in disillusionment, having concluded that Edward is ‘not the man for her’. Her resolve, however, is short-lived. Indeed, this is to be our last fleeting glimpse of any recognisable human instinct. Patricia takes delivery of a giant bouquet from Interflora, and is immediately persuaded to reconsider. With renewed anticipation, she sets out once more for Castle House, the remote marshland fastness near Bantry where the Foleys have their home.

Before turning to what comes next, a brief note on spoilers may be in order. Norton’s many fans will doubtless want to make up their own minds about this book, and they may rest assured that most of its secrets have been kept. However, it is impossible to give a fair account of these proceedings without discussing one central development in particular, so those who prefer to save themselves are advised to look away now.

To no one’s surprise but Patricia’s, events at Castle House take a dark turn. When a deception is discovered, she announces her intention to return home, but Mrs Foley has other ideas. Determined to establish her son in matrimonial bliss, she has conceived of a plan, and one that takes no particular account of the compliance of the bride-to-be. Patricia is briskly drugged and imprisoned in a flouncy guest room, leaving these confines only to use the toilet or undertake forced domestic labour. Though she occasionally seems put out by these arrangements, she reflects – when called upon to dust her captor’s figurines – that it gives her ‘a strange sense of satisfaction’.

This is, to put it simply, bananas. So is Patricia’s insistence that Edward is ‘not a bad man’, even if he does tear up a bit when directed to restrain her. The ghoulishness of the scenario is not in itself the problem. We might have believed that Patricia had succumbed to some form of Stockholm syndrome if we had witnessed the development of that distorted intimacy. But Edward rarely tears himself away from his udders and Mrs Foley is not so much a character as a Hitchcockian neurosis in a cardigan. What plays out instead is a rickety fiasco peopled by gormless stick figures that would be disturbing if it were remotely convincing.

There are traces here of the book this might have been. Norton has a keen eye for the quirks and textures of small Irish towns, and might have made a go of the dark and ribald comedy that seems at times to be straining to get out. But as A Keeper lurches to its sombre and oddly stagy finale, we are preoccupied not with what might have been but with what he can possibly have been thinking.

Connect by Julian Gough

This review originally appeared in The Guardian.

In the final pages of Connect, its central character arrives at a climactic epiphany. ‘Everything,’ Colt reflects, ‘can be described at every level.’ But, he goes on to acknowledge, ‘it’s better to describe things at the level at which they make most sense.’

It is an observation that neatly encapsulates both the scale of this novel’s ambition and its most distracting tendencies, the first of which is in evidence right from the start. Set in the near future, Connect focuses on the teenage Colt and his mother, a geneticist named Naomi Chiang who has discovered a potent alternative to stem cell therapies. Based on the imaginal discs that are instrumental to insect metamorphosis, Naomi’s technique, if developed, could allow complex body parts – and even brain tissue – to be rapidly regrown. Colt, who spends much of his time immersed in a virtual gameworld, is affected by a condition that resembles Asperger syndrome. Pinocchio-like, he wants to be a ‘real boy’, and sees that promise in his mother’s work.

Image result for connect goughDistrusting her own findings, Naomi has been reluctant to publish them, but her research has already attracted attention. The NSA, now entirely delinquent and vastly powerful, has spotted its military potential and wants it suppressed. When Colt persuades Naomi to give a conference paper, the two are promptly apprehended and, in time-honoured fashion, whisked away to a secret base in Nevada.

Colt, however, has been busy. He has stolen into Naomi’s lab, intent on engineering a neurotypical brain, and injected himself with an untested imaginal disc.

‘But…why?’ she asks him.

Colt hedges a little, then confesses. ‘I could talk to…to women, Mama.’

It is a touching scene, and no less so for its playful deference to superhero origin stories. It proves to be pivotal, too, not least because Colt, as tradition requires, has been granted not just the abilities he coveted, but lots more besides. His brain is now stuffed not only with an outsize corpus callosum (a structure implicated in autism spectrum disorders), but with an intricate tissue of upgrades generated from insect neurons. These enable Colt to escape from the NSA’s desert fortress, to keep ahead of the ensuing manhunt and to confront the ‘immune system’, a terrifying digital panopticon developed (in a pleasing Oedipal flourish) by his own father.

In fiction as in film, unchecked superpowers tend to alienate the audience.

These episodes are propulsive and engrossing, but life with the newly enhanced Colt isn’t all fun and games. To begin with, his condition is not in any sense ‘cured’, a development that would be inconsistent with Gough’s sophisticated and sympathetic presentation of autism. Far from exploiting it as a narrative contrivance (as other novelists have repeatedly done), he is at pains to show us the richness and complexity of experience of the atypical brain.

This approach is clearly commendable, and the resulting portrait is – up to a point – both illuminating and inclusive. The problem, for narrative purposes, is not that the supercharged Colt remains atypical, but that he becomes a singular prototype, acquiring cognitive abilities so dazzling that at first he is literally blinded. Gough has a great deal of fun with this, and for a time so do we, but as Colt’s abilities grow, he struggles to explain them to lesser mortals. When he predicts a violent eruption of solar activity, his father is intrigued, but Colt is by now reduced to an impatient shorthand. ‘The math isn’t up to the job,’ he explains. ‘But I can see it in my head.’

This too is a familiar trope, and one that becomes increasingly problematic. In fiction as in film, unchecked superpowers tend to alienate the audience (superheroes have human alter egos for a reason) and to rob the drama before us of a necessary friction. Much of the remaining conflict is between an implacable artificial intelligence and Colt’s own hypertrophied intellect, and although he suffers setbacks – and faces a final challenge that requires a uniquely human solution – it is a contest largely devoid of emotional interest.

What we are left with amounts to a frenetic livestream from Colt’s prodigious consciousness, relieved only by hyperactive digressions on everything from particle physics to cryptography, strange authorial intrusions and an onerous ballast of epigraphs (we don’t need constant interruptions from Bertrand Russell or Ray Kurzweil to appreciate the extent and eclecticism of Gough’s reading).

Yet for all its helpless excitability, there is plenty of real excitement in this novel, and a spirit of joyous curiosity that may strain our patience at times but never quite loses its charm. What Gough attempts here is to describe everything at every level, and the effort is in many ways hugely admirable. But fiction subsists on human experience, and it is better, as Colt reminds us, to describe things at the level at which they make most sense.

Property by Lionel Shriver

This review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Towards the end of ‘The Standing Chandelier’, the novella that opens Lionel Shriver’s first collection of short fiction, one of its protagonists – or, at this point, its antagonists – makes an observation that comes to seem bleakly defining. Jillian Frisk (a self-absorbed hobbyist) and Weston Babansky (a ruminative deadbeat) have maintained a near-platonic friendship for twenty years, but when Babansky seizes a late romantic opportunity it is sacrificed on the altar of marriage, leading to an unseemly tussle over a wedding gift.

‘The ties between the two parties had been severed,’ Babansky reflects. ‘All that remained was stuff.’

The preoccupations of this collection are announced in its title, and such sentiments might appear to go with the territory. Yet here, at least, they are modestly enlivened by irony. The wedding gift in question has indeed provoked hostilities, but the contest that animates the story is – somewhat improbably – for possession of Babansky himself.

Image result for property shriver

It is an engaging study of the calculus of intimacy, and Shriver brings to it a measure of the psychological acuity for which her novels have been praised, but it is marked, as all these stories are, by a grimly transactional view of social conduct. Shriver’s characters are inveterate scorekeepers, maintaining meticulous accounts of everything from unpaid restaurant bills to unreciprocated filial love. While these exaggerations may well be deliberate, they are staged without concessions to dramatic irony, giving these fictions an airless and mechanistic quality that grows more pronounced even as Shriver finds more inventive ways to sustain her central conceit.

In ‘The Self-Seeding Sycamore’, a widow tends the garden she once disdained, only to find it aggressively colonised by a neighbour’s tree. Said neighbour, a gym-honed oaf named Burt, is duly confronted and – after a guerilla pruning raid results in mishap – briskly seduced. Perhaps recognising its slightness, Shriver elects not to burden this forlorn apparatus with an emotional payload, or indeed with any recognisable motives. ‘The Royal Male’, in which a disgruntled postman wins the affections of the retiree whose letters he has purloined, is no less flimsy, and by the time its characters arrive at their squalid and unlikely romantic accommodation, we can no longer be bothered to work out who is appropriating what from whom.

What is objectionable here is not the standard-issue right wing mudslinging but the author’s casual delinquency in rupturing the fabric of her own fiction.

But Shriver’s apparent loss of interest in the development of her theme is, by this time, the least of our concerns. The first duty of a reviewer, insofar as any consensus can be found, is to set aside prejudice and to consider each piece of work on its merits alone. A writer’s politics and public pronouncements, however distasteful we may find them, must usually be ruled inadmissible as evidence. But this duty, in Shriver’s case, is complicated by a number of factors, not the least of which is her own disregard for the boundary between fictional perspectives and her own clearly recognisable views.

In ‘The Subletter’, for instance, a character has no sooner been introduced (as the product of ‘liberal, Bennington parents’ who endorses the ‘spread-the-goodies tenets of European social democracy’) than Shriver, impatient with these lukewarm reflections, lurches from the scenery to stage an editorial intervention. ‘Had Sara ever been personally subject to the Continent’s horrendous upper-bracket tax rates,’ she interjects, ‘her politics might have lined up promptly with her more conservative inclinations in private life.’

What is objectionable here is not the standard-issue right wing mudslinging but the author’s casual delinquency in rupturing the fabric of her own fiction. But Shriver doesn’t stop there. In ‘The ChapStick’, a man visiting his ailing father finds himself inconvenienced by airport security personnel. A TSA employee is introduced thus: ‘The African American agent who issued him off to the side would not have looked nearly as fat if her pants weren’t so tight.’

This is not merely repellent but nakedly provocative, yet we can anticipate Shriver’s wide-eyed defence. In her 2016 novel, The Mandibles, an African American woman is restrained by her white family using a leash. When this depiction was criticised for its racial insensitivity, Shriver pointed out that the woman is suffering from early-onset dementia. ‘How else,’ she reasoned sweetly, ‘would they control her?’

Shriver will no doubt dispense with this criticism in similarly airy terms, but in this instance she has already advertised her own bad faith. When a supervisor shows up (he is black too, and further inflames the situation by ‘swaggering’), Shriver and her sock puppet all but cast the subterfuge aside. ‘Oh, great,’ he thinks, ‘this encounter [has] every capacity to escalate into a race matter.’ Well, quite.

The ties that are severed, in such moments, are those between the author and her reader. If we can no longer afford her the benefit of the doubt, the compact by which fiction is sustained simply collapses. All that remains, ugly and out of place, is stuff.

The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

Do you think you know London? Hester White, who narrates Laura Carlin’s debut novel, confronts us first with this question. Hester did once, or thought she did. Raised in a parsonage in the Lincolnshire Wolds, she would listen raptly when her father returned from his travels, imagining a wonderland of ‘wherries and steamers’, where one might ‘take a seat on Shillibeer’s omnibus…stopping at The Unicorn for beefsteak with oyster sauce’.

The Wicked ComethBut Hester’s father, by the time we encounter her, is long dead, and her childish illusions have been abandoned. Orphaned at eleven, and lacking better prospects, she has been taken in by the family of his former gardener. Consigned to insalubrious lodgings among the backstreets of Bethnal Green, Hester now counts ‘foglers, lifters and murderers’ among her neighbours. Her London, she assures us, ‘isn’t the one Papa visited, or the one you might think you know’.

The year is 1831, and the streets Hester has come to know are lightless and filthy, teeming with thieves and vagrants. With its chipper rogues and multifarious squalor, it is, perhaps, a rather more familiar milieu than Hester seems to think, but it is brought to life with such grimy vitality that it seems a shame to leave it behind. But for our heroine, understandably, it has few attractions. Her ‘Uncle Jacob’ is a drunkard and a lecherous pig, her ‘Aunt Meg’ a figure of dubious charity. The urchins of the locality, meanwhile, have been disappearing with unsettling frequency. Entrusted one morning with the household’s last shilling, Hester seizes her chance.

Hester’s London is brought to life with such grimy vitality that it seems a shame to leave it behind.

Her escape hinges on the vaguest of plans, and gets off to an inauspicious start when she falls under the wheels of carriage. Its occupant proves to be an imperious young physician named Calder Brock, who scoops her up without a word and deposits her at his Westminster townhouse. There she is fussed over by servants while her injuries are tended to, and if she is suitably awed by her good fortune, she is also understandably curious. Just who is this Mr Brock, and why has she been so richly favoured?

His explanation is reassuring, if mildly improbable. Mr Brock, it transpires, is a member of the much-feared London Society for the Suppression of Mendicity, but favours enlightened methods and means to demonstrate to his colleagues ‘that even those from the gutter can be educated’. Hester plays along – she was educated by her father, but knows when she is on to a good thing – and is promptly whisked off to Waterford Hall, family seat of the Brocks, there to convalesce in the country air while undergoing an improving course of instruction.

All, needless to say, is not quite as it seems. There are dark mutterings among the servants, and Hester has misgivings of her own. A young scullery maid has joined the ranks of the missing, while Rebekah Brock, her benefactor’s sister, is said to show an excessive fondness for certain of her ladies’ maids.

But it is the enigmatic Rebekah, Hester soon learns, who is to tutor her in the ways of gentility. Hester proves an apt pupil, and the two soon establish a hesitant rapport. Intimations of a deeper attraction grow, but a misunderstanding intervenes before any declarations can be made. The obligatory reversal of fortune follows, and by the time Hester returns to London, sunk in dejection and beset by deepening mysteries, all the trappings of a satisfying melodrama have been assembled.

And this, to be clear, is no bad thing. After all, Wilkie Collins fashioned some of the most glittering entertainments of the nineteenth century from these very materials. But before Wilkie Collins, there was the penny dreadful, and it is to the tawdry pleasures of that genre that Carlin’s tale – with its unmistakable echoes of popular novels like The Mysteries of London – pays its most overt homage. The results are splendidly diverting, for the most part, but as in all such exercises, there is the looming danger of pastiche. While a degree of staginess goes with the territory, Carlin is inclined to trowel on the period mannerisms (no one hurries, in this novel, when they can ‘make haste’), and to couch the most ordinary passages in such an excess of descriptive upholstery that the reader feels threatened at times with suffocation. In one scene of domestic contentment, ‘the repast is plated’ while ‘the fire is obediently giving off heat’, which is not only cloying but faintly perplexing. By dint of sheer exuberance, though, this spirited and highly readable debut makes such excesses seem forgivable, leaving us a little bloated, in the end, but certainly not unsatisfied.

The Wicked Cometh is published by Hodder & Stoughton.

The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

If some literary fairy godmother had intervened in its fate, she could hardly have engineered a more gratifying outcome than the real-life reception of Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13. Garlanded by critics (including this one) and nominated for several major prizes, it has also been embraced by readers to a degree that – given its outwardly austere subject matter – could hardly have been taken for granted.

9780008235659The arrival of The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece that first appeared in serial form on BBC Radio 4, suggests a certain confidence in this public enthusiasm, yet even those readers who admired the original novel may wonder if this new volume, appearing only eight months after its predecessor, is deserving of their attention.

Such doubts are quickly dispelled. Broadcast over fifteen episodes, and billed as ‘perspectives’ on the central events of the novel, The Reservoir Tapes revisits the small community in rural Derbyshire from which thirteen-year-old Becky Shaw disappeared. We hear first from Charlotte, the missing girl’s mother – or rather, we don’t. The arresting opening episode takes the form of an interview, but the transcript has been redacted so that only the halting and fragmentary questions remain. ‘I know this is difficult,’ the anonymous interviewer says. ‘I wasn’t implying.’ But she is, of course, and her prompting is so precisely shaded with suggestion and insinuation that Charlotte’s wounded and flinching presence is conjured without a word.

The effectiveness of such techniques is assured, in part, by McGregor’s uncanny ear for the tics and cadences of everyday speech. In the novel, his lucent and graceful descriptive passages competed for our attention, but these pieces confine themselves to the characters’ own accounts, lending them the documentary fascination of true crime and a suspense that depends – as in that genre – on the omissions and obfuscations of witnesses; on what they insinuate about others and what they reveal, knowingly or otherwise, about themselves.

Their lapses are subtle at first. Recalling a hike he led, a man notes that a group of girl guides ‘swayed when they walked, with the weight’. It might be nothing, this detail, but we begin to wonder. An elderly bachelor helps a young boy to fix his bicycle, then invites him in to ‘get scrubbed up’. The man will not let him leave until his hands are entirely clean.

These intimations become increasingly unsettling. A woman falls abruptly silent when her husband raises his hand. (‘Like getting ready to swat a fly.’) A sheep farmer assisting in the search is recognised in a TV news interview by a sex worker who encountered him years before, and who recalls an incident of naked brutality and one that revealed, perhaps, the shadowy contours of pathology.

In ‘Clive’s Story’, the most unnerving of these pieces, the same elderly bachelor is visited by the police. Questioned about his encounter with the young boy, he lapses into a rambling monologue, and what follows is a masterclass in the gentle escalation of unease. From banal ruminations on reservoir maintenance, Clive veers into a creepy rhapsody on the marvels of anatomy, reflecting on the graceful musculature of swimmers before offering his thoughts – and at this point we are wondering just how much of this monologue is internal – on the miraculous intricacy to be observed in a skinned rabbit.

‘We are well made,’ he muses, recalling his scripture at the queasy climax of the passage. ‘We are fearfully and wonderfully made.’

These stories, too, are fearfully and wonderfully made, though it is difficult to articulate just what they add to the experience of Reservoir 13. That book that was widely praised for its lightness of touch, and for the immersive effect of its sparing accretion of detail. These pieces are certainly not unsubtle, but whereas our suspicions, in the novel, were formed from no more than glancing impressions, we are presented here with much starker portraits, especially of men, and there is a heightened amplitude to our sense of dread. If the subject matter were different, we might be tempted to conclude otherwise, but coming as it does at the end of a year of grim revelations about male abusers, the fresh ‘evidence’ collected here has about it a weight of necessity.

It brings us no closer to ‘solving’ the novel’s mystery, but that was never the point. In any small town, these stories remind us, slithering nests will lurk in the shuttered hearts of men; in any small town, for as long as their secrets are kept, women and girls will suffer at their hands. This much, dismally, is no mystery at all.

Collected Toaster Settings, 2015 – 2017

These collected toaster settings are drawn from an occasional Twitter series. They are presented here without comment, not least because I have no idea how to account for them.

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

An edited version of this review originally appeared in the Irish Times.

‘Ordinary things,’ the novelist Marilynne Robinson once remarked, ‘have always seemed numinous to me.’ Jon McGregor may not share Robinson’s preoccupation with the divine, but there are few writers whose work has more consistently affirmed the luminous dignity of the everyday. His debut novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, took as its subject an unnamed city street and the inner lives of its residents. Panoptic and quietly rhapsodic, its very title seemed to announce his intentions as a writer. ‘If you listen, you can hear it,’ it began. ‘The city, it sings.’

And sing it did. There was no shortage of beauty in this early work, though its painterly effects tended at times to eclipse its characters, presenting not so much human interactions as exquisite tableaux vivants. McGregor has long since learned to temper these excesses, honing his lyrical gifts and yielding the foreground to his characters. His growing stature has not gone unrecognised. Longlisted twice for the Booker prize, he won the Impac Dublin Literary Award in 2012 for Even The Dogs. Even by the standards of his mature work, however, McGregor’s latest novel is a remarkable achievement.


Set in an unnamed town in the English midlands, Reservoir 13 seems at first to tread familiar ground. A young girl has gone missing, and in the darkness of a midwinter morning the search is beginning. ‘It was cold and there was little conversation. There were questions that weren’t being asked.’

The missing girl, Rebecca Shaw, had been on a family holiday and had formed only a few tenuous friendships. In the photograph that is circulated her face is ‘half-turned away’. She is remembered variously as ‘Rebecca, or Becky, or Bex’, an elusive and prismatic presence in the town’s collective consciousness. Most people hardly knew her, but rumours are repeated. Stories are told. Spring arrives, and still Rebecca has not been found.

Life goes on. It is a comforting truism, something we tell ourselves in the aftermath of shocking or inexplicable events. Yet to a writer of McGregor’s particular gifts, the banal can present invigorating challenges. Life does go on, undeniably, but how? How do we absorb events like these, and how do they alter us?

To answer these questions, McGregor returns to the broad social canvas of his first novel, but his undertaking here is far more ambitious. The author himself posted a partial dramatis personae on Twitter that ran to eighty-odd entries. Many are recurring characters, not fully developed in the usual sense, but skilfully realised nonetheless. They emerge in glancing encounters, the narrative’s perspective slipping unobtrusively among them. The effect is cumulative and subtle, leaving us with a precisely calibrated sense of familiarity. These are people we might see on the school run, or speak to while queueing at the post office. We can only glimpse their inner lives, guess at their secrets.

McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference.

At times the narrative drifts apart from human company altogether, pausing to observe the foraging of fox cubs or to mark some small increment in the progress of the seasons: ‘The sun cut further into the valley and under the ash trees the first new ferns unfurled from the cold black soil.’ Descriptive writing of this kind is often praised for its ‘arresting’ beauty, yet these passages are remarkable precisely because they do not halt the reader’s momentum. Indeed, McGregor’s prose throughout this novel is as near to faultless as makes no difference. Fluid and fastidious, its sparing loveliness feels deeply true to its subject. There are moments, as in life, of miraculous grace, but no more than that.

There is beauty, likewise, in the moors and in the beech woods that surround the town, but this is no mere idyll. Here too the life that persists is driven by animal necessity. Unfledged blackbirds are taken by crows. Goldcrests feed in the churchyard yews. We see summers end (‘the butterflies rose like ash on the breeze and the ice-cream vans still appeared’) and winters encroach again (‘the sheep were nicotine-yellow against the fresh snow’). The missing girl is spoken of still, as the years pass. There are occasional ‘sightings’, though these are no longer taken seriously. She recedes in the town’s memory, but never quite vanishes. Suspicions arise (as when a school caretaker is found in possession of child abuse images), that may come to nothing.

It is a mark of greatness in a work of art that its effects, though profound, are not easily accounted for. Reservoir 13 is not a crime novel, at least in the traditional sense, and its central mystery is more than just a procedural puzzle. We do not come to know Rebecca Shaw, but we feel in the end that her life has been given a solemn and particular weight, its traces documented until they are too faint to be seen. In her absence, the swallows come and go. People marry or move away. There are moments of sadness, of squalor, of indelible beauty. Look, this humane and tender masterpiece is saying. This is what becomes of us. This is what remains. Life goes on.

Reservoir 13 is published by 4th Estate.