That subtitle is a quote from the press release for Luke Brown’s smart, funny new novel and it’s what made me want to read it. I tend to find the A4 sheets that accompany review copies a wee bit over the top but I loved that phrase which turned out to fit Theft very well. Of course, if I’d known that its main protagonist was a bookseller and reviewer, I’d have needed no such persuasion.
Paul lives in the dilapidated Dalston flat he’s shared for years with various friends and acquaintances. He’s worked part-time in a Bloomsbury bookshop for a decade, trawling clubs at night for fetching haircut shots to post on the magazine page whose hits far outstrip his book reviews. He’s on the edge of London’s literary milieu, managing to land himself an interview with a reclusive novelist with whom he sparks a connection. Emily invites Paul to lunch at the Holland Park house she shares with her partner Andrew, a well-known historian several decades older. There he meets Sophie, Andrew’s daughter, busy cultivating her rebelliousness via her Guardian pieces on sexual politics. Holland Park is a world away from the small Northern seaside town where Paul was raised with his sister Amy. Their mother has recently died in a car crash, leaving them the family home. Amy’s keen to sell, planning to plough the proceeds into a flat currently just out of her financial reach and thinks Paul should do the same but he’s reluctant to let go of the life he’s led since he left university, despite having reached his mid-thirties. Over a year which sees the EU referendum, Paul continues to flirt with Emily’s world until he takes an irrevocable step and is cast out.
What I did to them was terrible, but you have to understand the context.
With its snappy opening sentence Brown sets his readers up for mischief in this novel which explores the intergenerational divide, London’s literary life and the state of our divided nation. Paul is an engaging narrator – a bookish party boy, falling in love here and there, caught up in his obsession with Emily, seemingly unable to fully acknowledge his mother’s death and how angry it’s made him. Brown’s characters are astutely drawn – Sophie’s constant public yanking of her father’s chain in her Guardian pieces and her cynical virtue signalling are particularly well done – and it’s very funny at times, underpinned, as all good social comedy should be, with some acute observations. Paul’s London life is in stark contrast to the lives of his old schoolmates in the seaside town where the fishing industry has long since dwindled, replaced with nothing. A hugely entertaining novel with a pleasingly acerbic edge, I loved it.
And Other Stories: London 2020 9781911508588 320 pages Paperback
There’s something irresistible about a state-of-the-nation novel, even if that nation has shifted cataclysmically since the novel was conceived. This isn’t the first book in that vein Amanda Craig has written – I remember enjoying Hearts and Minds which explored the lives of immigrants in London a few years back. Two characters from that novel take centre stage in The Lie of the Land which looks at the divisions between town and country through the clever, involving story of Lottie, furious with the philandering Quentin but too broke to divorce him.
Made redundant from her job as an architect, thanks to Britain’s post-financial crisis recession, Lottie is searching for a way out of her marriage. She and Quentin share a house in London bought long before property prices became stratospheric. She finds a Devon farmhouse with a surprisingly low rent, lets the London house and takes off with Quentin, their two young daughters and her mixed-race teenage son reluctantly in tow. The plan is to sell the house once the economy has recovered so that she and Quentin can each buy a flat. Everyone hates the countryside: the dilapidated farmhouse offends Lottie’s professional sensibilities and she misses her mother; Rosie and Stella miss their friends; Xan is bored to tears and the butt of racist remarks; Quentin uses the proceeds from his column deriding rural life to pay for a cleaner about whom the girls are distinctly suspicious and frequently takes off for London, ostensibly to cultivate his contacts but staying with his new girlfriend. As the year rolls on, each of them finds a way to cope without the glossy, sophisticated charms of London. Even Quentin occupies himself, speculating about writing the biography of their landlord, an ageing rock star who rejoices in the name Gore Tore. Alongside the Bredins’ story, another one unfolds. It seems that Home Farm’s previous tenant was murdered, a gruesome crime still unsolved.
If you’re looking for a piece of engrossing, intelligent fiction, The Lie of the Land is just the ticket. Craig handles her themes deftly, covering a multitude of issues afflicting twenty-first century British society within the framework of a rollicking good story. Her portrayal of rural poverty and deprivation, unnoticed by the tourists on whom the local economy depends, blows a hole through the much-cherished idea of the English pastoral idyll. Marriage is put under the microscope and men, even the apparently devoted, are found wanting. There’s a bright thread of humour running through the novel: Cold Comfort Farm came to mind when the grisly murder appeared on the horizon, and a few pages later Craig gives it a nod with a quote. Her characters are nicely three-dimensional, Quentin neatly dodging redemption when he tells his mother close to the end of the novel ‘without selfishness, I’ll have a life of misery and boredom’. The murder thread is satisfyingly – if a little melodramatically – resolved and the ending is a perfect fit. The book’s message was summed up for me when Lottie tells Xan ‘Maybe nobody gets what they believe should be theirs, but just getting a bit of it is worthwhile. Just a bit is more than most ever get’. A little like a modern Trollope, Craig is a vivid chronicler of the way we live now. I’m looking forward to the next instalment.
It’s time for a new issue of Shiny New Books, packed with features, competitions, book news and reviews. With lots of contributions from a wide variety of bloggers and authors, it’s well worth a look and if you haven’t come across it yet I suggest you get yourself on over there. My own contribution to this issue is a review of Marc Bojanowski’s Journeyman, a state of the nation novel which manages to pack a clear-eyed view of America in 2007 – teetering on the brink of the financial crash – into just over one hundred and seventy pages. Here’s a little taster:
There’s something very attractive about a state of the nation novel. It offers the chance to examine a snapshot of a country, taking in the many forces at play that make up its society at a particular point in its history. Recent events have provoked a rash of them – John Lanchester’s Capital, Jonathan Coe’s Number 11, Justin Cartwright’s Other People’s Money, Blake Morrison’s South of the River – to name but a few. Nothing new, of course: George Eliot’s Middlemarch is perhaps one of the finest ‘state of the nation’ novels in British fiction. Marc Bojanaowski’s Journeyman follows in that long literary tradition offering us a portrait of the USA through the eyes of Nolan Jackson, an itinerant carpenter and self-styled modern cowboy…
If you’d like to read more you’ll find the full review here.