Oh, I do love an unreliable narrator. Even better when you’re not sure whether they’re reliable or not right up until the end. The premise of Antoine Wilson’s Mouth to Mouth is a clever one: two men, barely acquainted in college, are stranded by a delayed flight – one a struggling writer on his way to Berlin on a speculative visit to his publisher, the other an urbane art dealer with a story to tell.
I was the good person I thought I was. Don’t forget that
Our unnamed writer recognises Jeff despite the twenty years since they were at college drifting in and out of each other’s orbits. Jeff invites our writer to join him in the first-class lounge, chewing over the past briefly before beginning the story that keeps our writer riveted. Broken-hearted and in a dead-end job, Jeff had gone out for a dawn walk on the beach. Spotting someone in difficulties, he went to the rescue of the swimmer who almost seemed to register him before being whisked off to hospital. Jeff becomes obsessed with this man whose life he’s saved, tracking down his identity, spending days observing him, not quite plucking up the courage to reveal himself. When he sees there’s a vacancy for an assistant at the man’s art gallery, he applies and gets the job. Francis Arsehault is hugely successful in the art world, commanding respect for his judgement and connections. When Jeff becomes involved with Francis’ daughter, he finally comes to his boss’ notice but still no revelation of what has brought them together is made. Jeff is well established in the family when a crisis hits that will have devastating and far-reaching consequences.
It’s art. I could take anything and pump it up or tear it down
The device of one man unburdening himself to another works beautifully for this expertly spun story which might be a confessional or might not. There’s no room for padding with a flight delay, keeping the tension pleasingly taut. Wilson sticks to short chapters, neatly slipping in Jeff’s ambiguous hints so that there’s a niggling uncertainty about his motives and the role he’s presenting to our writer. Francis is a complex character whose dubious morality is well drawn and Wilson’s depiction of the art world is biting, the market rather than the art taking centre stage. Properly unputdownable, it’s a novel ripe for a movie adaptation in the right hands
Atlantic Books: London 9781838955199 192 pages Hardback