The Echo Chamber by John Boyne; ‘Cancelling the Cleverleys’

Cover image for The Echo Chamber by John BoyneIt took me some time to get around to reading a John Boyne novel probably because they tend to be chunksters rather than the pared-back novellas I favour. I took A Ladder to the Sky on holiday to Portugal then read and thoroughly enjoyed The Heart’s Invisible Furies. The Echo Chamber follows the Cleverleys, made famous by self-proclaimed national treasure George Cleverley, over the course of five days in which they find themselves caught up in a social media maelstrom.

Because, ironically, when it comes to social media, anything is acceptable and nothing is acceptable

George and Beverley have been married for many years. Both are successful in their chosen professions – he as a chat show host, she as a novelist of sorts – both have been indulging in their first infidelity. They have three children, all living at home. Nelson is a teacher still bullied by an ex-schoolmate now a colleague at their old school. Elizabeth devotes herself to her social media profile, often posting the philanthropic acts she knows will score her ‘likes’. Achilles is still at school, his good looks put to use ensnaring men on the lookout for boys then blackmailing them. Monday starts with the first blows that will pummel the Cleverleys over the next five days as George’s lover tells him she’s pregnant and Beverley’s tells her he’s off to his father’s funeral in Ukraine, entrusting her with the care of his beloved tortoise. Nelson suffers the usual miseries at school, Elizabeth frets about her Twitter presence, spewing vitriol from her new account @TruthIsASword and Achilles has a new target in his sights, a widower in his fifties ripe for a few thousand pounds. When George congratulates his agent’s receptionist on transitioning from Aidan to Nadia all hell lets loose on social media thanks to his choice of pronouns. By the end of the working week each of the Cleverleys has had a close encounter with the law and their lives have been transformed.

Why deny it? It’ll be all over the internet by now anyway, so, true or false, it just automatically becomes fact  

This is the third novel I’ve read this year which take swipes at social media. Both Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts and Patricia Lockwood’s Women’s Prize longlisted No One is Talking About This took on the theme, the latter more successfully than the former for me. Boyne’s is the first of these three to use humour so effectively in a kind of slapstick satire which pokes fun at the sanctimonious outrage spouted on social media while conveying a serious message about the damage it inflicts. Boyne has a lot of fun with his characters while lampooning aspects of modern life, from hipster fads to virtue signalling, celebrity to entitlement, but his primary target is social media and its all-pervasive influence. Despite its 432 pages, I whizzed through this entertaining, very funny sometimes acerbic novel whose pleasing epilogue sees all five Cleverleys on holiday in a remote Scottish peninsula, far, far away from WiFi.

Doubleday: London 9780857526212 432 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

25 thoughts on “The Echo Chamber by John Boyne; ‘Cancelling the Cleverleys’”

  1. This probably isn’t for me (as I wasn’t keen on the Boyne I had to read for book group a few years ago), but I will recommend it to others in the group who might be interested. It sounds as if he uses humour very well here, which is good to see.

  2. I was just reading about this book last night (it comes out here in the States in December), and I was thinking about putting it on the reading list — and then I read a comment in The Guardian that it’s too “plot heavy”. Do you think it’s overcrowded? I would so enjoy a novel humorously skewering social media, especially after Boyne having personally experienced its backlash! And you’re writing here that you laughed and read it quickly, so I’m inclined to still go for it.

  3. Sounds like the best kind of writing, a great reading experience and sharp social commentary. So you’re having a great time and smugly believing you’re growing and learning all the while. Heheh

  4. Sounds a good one–must pick it up sometime; I’ve just been listening to Dr Wortle’s School by Trollope which involved a lot of Victorian age social media–gossip through letters and conversation–which too inflicts its share of damage.

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