When I first picked up Jim Powell’s new novel I was looking for a bit of light relief after finishing Olivia Laing’s excellent but often harrowing The Lonely City. I thought it might be a much slimmed down version of John Lanchester’s Capital or Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, a post-financial crash novel, which to some extent it is but it’s also about what can happen to us when our lives turn out to be far from what we’d hoped.
Sixty-year-old Matthew Oxenhay is driving along the A303 towards Barnet, leaving Somerset behind him. Whether he continues in that direction depends on his wife not answering her phone. If she does answer it, he’ll tell her he’s leaving her, turn around and head back to Anna in Somerset. He’ll make the phone call if five white cars pass him. Matthew is a chronic gambler, albeit an apparently respectable one, trading futures in the City up until a few months ago when he was downsized ahead of the looming global financial meltdown. He even got the job as the result of a backfiring bet with his fellow students way back in the ’60s, all of them intent on changing the world. Judy, his wife of many years, loves their settled comfortable life but Matthew loathes it. He’s now in the grips of an existential crisis, pretending to Judy that he still has a job, turning up to sit in the office which his old boss has tolerantly allowed him to occupy and drinking far too much. On an errand for his erstwhile employers, Matthew spots an attractive blonde roughly his own age, convincing himself it’s Anna with whom he fell in love one idyllic summer afternoon in 1967. When the two of them click over a drink, Matthew begins to entertain all sorts of ideas.
Matthew’s story unfolds through his own waspish, darkly funny inner monologue. He’s a ‘60s rebel for whom the very idea of a career as a futures trader would have been despicable all those years ago. He’s that uncomfortable mixture of self-loathing and arrogance, dismissing his wife’s careful construction of their comfortable life as dull and prosaic while ruing his own betrayal of his baby boomer ideals. It’s often very funny – there’s a particularly amusing scene with a lunch guest in which Matthew finds himself ‘defending crooked capitalist practices on behalf of the Labour party, while the brave Captain Ahab spoke for the downtrodden masses on behalf of the Tories’. In amongst all this, Matthew comes out with some observations it’s hard to argue with particularly on the subject of the City’s shenanigans. Sharply observed and grimly funny, in the end Matthew’s journey is a sobering one. There are a few unlikely coincidences but it’s good enough to suspend your disbelief. An enjoyable read then – if not quite the antidote to The Lonely City I was looking for – and who can resist a novel which contains the line ‘I think I mostly learn about reality from works of fiction’.
It’s always tricky disentangling a writer’s life from his fiction when you know that his narrator’s biography overlaps with his own. It’s all too easy to extend that overlap as you read, difficult to draw the line. South African by birth, Justin Cartwright is the descendent of Piet Retief whose search for fertile land took him and a small group of settlers into the territory of Digane, king of the Zulus, who slaughtered the entire party including the women and children. Cartwright’s narrator shares this ancestry. He’s sixty, ten years younger than his creator, at an age when he’s begun to think about where he came from and who he is.
Frank is preparing for a trip to Cape Town – partly to investigate his ancestry, partly to satisfy a yearning for what still feels like home. He’s the kind of man who describes himself as ‘fairly wealthy’ yet owns a house in Notting Hill, one in the New Forest and another close to the ocean in Cape Town. Frank has lived in England since his brief stint as a student at Oxford, dropping out to work for a stockbroker – now his closest friend – then making his money in the property business. As he readies himself to travel he muses on his famous ancestor, his South African childhood, his ex-wife whose increasingly deranged letters he hands to his lawyers, the effects of their acrimonious divorce on their daughter Lucinda and his distant cousin Jaco who seems to have become entangled in Scientology and is asking him for money. His visit to South Africa is not a solitary one: he’s taking his lover Nellie with him together with her teenage son and hoping that Lucinda, fresh out of rehab in California, will join them. Once there, his worries dissipate: Lucinda seems well and happy, Nellie and her son seem delighted with South Africa and all adore Isaac, the two year-old son of her ex-boyfriend Lucinda has brought with her. All looks set for an idyllic holiday.
Threaded through Frank’s narrative are memories of his childhood. Once a year he was sent to stay with his Tannie Marie, the great-aunt who lived on the family farm and read The Adventures of Pinocchio to him by candlelight, a scene which is a little too frequently reiterated throughout the book. Piet Retief’s story takes centre stage at the beginning while Jaco’s brief, explosive racist rants punctuate Frank’s somewhat pedestrian narrative half-way through. Frank’s feelings for his homeland are suffused with guilt: he makes sure his housekeeper whose husband has been murdered is financially comfortable but knows that theirs is an ‘unbalanced’ relationship; he realises that the family farm ‘practised a form of slavery’; he takes care to enquire after the black taxi driver’s family. He’s of the generation that turned their backs on apartheid but could never quite escape that association or the yearning for home, vividly expressed in Cartwright’s striking descriptions of the South African landscape. At one point Lucinda asks: ‘Are you ashamed of being Piet Retief’s descendent or are you kinda pleased, like people who are related to Billy the Kid or Bonnie and Clyde?’ It seemed to me that this is what prompted Cartwright to write Up Against the Night – and it’s was what kept me reading – but I’m not entirely sure that he came to a conclusion. The dramatic turn of events in Cape Town is a surprise, neatly confounding expectations. Something of a curate’s egg for me, then, but all told I’m glad I read it.
How do you feel about novels with a thread of autobiography running through them? Does it add interest for you or do you find yourself wondering what’s fact and what’s fiction?