The Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain arouThe Buried Giant (2015), Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in a decade, is a complex and allegorical mediaeval-style fantasy set in post-Roman Britain around the sixth century, which has as much to say about modern life as it does about the slaying of dragons. Across the fictional land, an unexplained fog hangs, which causes a kind of collective Alzheimer’s, with all memory being slowly lost to the mist. The novel’s main characters – Axl and Beatrice – are an ageing couple who set out from their small village to visit their long-departed son, who lives only a few villages away. With the war between Britons and Saxons not long finished, lands are not always hospitable and along the way the couple encounter a handful of major characters with whom they travel, some friendlier than others. There is a young boy, Edwin, who is cursed and seeking his lost mother; Wistan, a warrior who is honourable but dangerous and derives, surely, from Beowulf; and, finally, Sir Gawain, a famous if ageing knight of King Arthur’s court, here closer to Don Quixote than the fresh-faced knight of the famous story. In the haze of the mist, their stories mingle as, in classic quest story tradition, Axl and Beatrice face all manner of test, from negotiating difficult terrain and devious monks to fighting Querig, the dragon who has doomed their lands to the collective amnesia. All the while, they make their way towards their son, who lives, it transpires, on an island away from Axl and Beatrice’s own country. To reach it, they must claim passage with a boatman: strange and mythical men who, it is said, will only on rare occasions carry couples together to other lands, and only then if they are able to prove their devotion to each other. This is the final, defining test that Axl and Beatrice must face, no matter how heavily the odds are weighted against them.
The fog of collective amnesia that is slowly overtaking the inhabitants of Ishiguro’s world is an excellent conceit: the buried giant, more than Querig, refers to the memories deeply buried (or perhaps lost altogether), a mass forgetting that has allowed two peoples – Saxons and Britons – to find peace and reconciliation after a bloody war, just as, on a personal level, it has allowed Axl and Beatrice to be reunited after trouble in their own relationship. Within this giant allegory of a novel, this is the central and most powerful metaphor. It is reminiscent of Jose Saramago’s Blindness, in which a collective loss of sight amongst a city’s people is used as a metaphor for humanity’s failure to see even in clear daylight. Here, Ishiguro’s metaphor is as relevant to the reader as to his characters: if forgetting brings happiness, then how far ought we to excavate our own buried giants – the dark memories that dwell within us, unspoken for fear of their implications? And without memory, what of identity, individual or national? What holds the threads of life together if it is not memory? Without it, there is only an unending present.
This idea of truth hidden beneath the surface not only acts as a metaphor for the human relationship to memory but also to Ishiguro as a writer. No matter which genre he writes in, Ishiguro’s novels deal with life on the surface level, the meat of his works hidden deep beneath the words – The Buried Giant is no exception, although one might argue that in such an openly allegorical tale this fact is concealed less so than in some of his other works – and in this way The Buried Giant is almost a critical analysis of Ishiguro’s own attitude towards writing characters.
If the novel is about a way of living – about how relationships are formed and sustained, the trials that one must face in life and how they can be met with love, and the knowledge that not all is as it seems – then it is equally as much about death. The son that Axl and Beatrice seek has passed over to an island beyond their reach – they must persuade a boatman to carry them across the water to this isle – and the Mediaeval tradition, used by modern authors like Tolkien and Pullman, informs the reader that such a journey represents more than a simple crossing of water but a trip to the afterlife, a passing from this life to the next. In Ishiguro’s world, the boatmen who carry people from one isle to the next determine whether a couple are carried together or separately. It is a rare privilege for both to make the trip together, and Axl’s repeated anxiety about this journey throughout the novel is representative of the very human response to potential loss; the wrenching of a long loved one from one’s arms. As the novel progresses and the mist that engulfs the reader and the characters begins to lift (note, another subtle metaphor for the reading experience), the sense of existential dread that hangs about the novel begins to solidify into a very real, precise fear. In this way, Ishiguro creates an incredibly poignant journey that mirrors the experience of ageing with a partner and the creeping move towards the ultimate separation.
Ishiguro is always readable but although plain in its language, The Buried Giant describes a world that is full of classic mediaeval tropes – monsters that must be vanquished, knights and civil wars – as well as drawing on the traditions of various other mythologies to form a narrative space that is uncanny and somehow both filled with interest and almost devoid of character. Everything is muddled, from literary reference-points to the geography; all this contributes to the undeniable sense of confusion and dream-like suspension of reality. For Ishiguro, these half-formed allusions represent memories falling to the failing mind, and say something about the value of remembering and the threat of not, a fact that any historian will keenly confirm.
The dialogue of the novel is oddly formal, characteristic of language when it is not coloured by memory, but left as a functional tool of communication. This style introduces questions about the art of language and what elevates it beyond its rudimentary use as a means of communicating ideas. So too, the knock on effect this has on the formation and nurturing of ideas themselves: if language is functional, impoverished even, then thought must lose something. Like the people who inhabit Ishiguro’s world, when memory fades and words fail, nothing quite fits together. It is an interesting technique and one that fits with the wider ideas in the novel, but for the reader, the dialogue-heavy passages can leave one feeling a little dry.
Beyond the most obvious examples, there are metaphors all over the place in the text if one looks hard enough – try, for example, to read Querig the fiery she-dragon who terrorises a people as a stand-in for Margaret Thatcher and the novel becomes an intriguing political allegory. Or consider the suspicious monks who, it is suggested, keep Querig alive – and The Buried Giant becomes an attack on theologies that attempt to remove free will and keep people spellbound and stupid, burying logic rather than facing the existential reality that would see them dispel all theology. Indeed, the scope and range of valid readings is enormous and, at times, one wonders if Ishiguro quite manages to pull off the huge number of, often conflicting, things he attempts in The Buried Giant. On the whole, one would have to say that he does, and where he doesn’t the sheer ambition more than makes up for any slight issues.
As the final pages close in, much of the mist has cleared for the reader, but things are by no means clear. The strange ending leaves one in undiscovered territory, unsure how things stand within the novel and forced to delve into the questions raised in the previous three hundred pages. It is an oddly appropriate end to an unusual and thought-provoking read, which is reminiscent of The Unconsoled in its dream-like quality. The reverberations of what Ishiguro has attempted here will run on long after the final pages for the reader, and, as a more accessible piece than The Unconsoled, might find wider acclaim. Expect to see The Buried Giant on the shortlist for many a fiction prize over the coming year (those, at least, that can see past its nominal categorisation as a Fantasy novel – a genre that doesn’t seem to find favour too often)....more
Necropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cNecropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cemeteries for Newton Borough council in a London suburb. He is also a sociopath, as the blurb - aping American Psycho's - tells us. Living a life detached, Dyson baulks at the painful lack of refinement he sees in all of his colleagues at the council, and - testament to the ubiquitous tastelessness evident in Dyson's world - the gaudy tributes to loved ones that festoon the graves in the cemeteries he oversees. A string of casual liaisons and cheap lunches string together Dyson's monotonous existence, that is, until he finds a means of escape in the form of a disgruntled European: Kiro Burgan, a council employee who spends his days tending the borough's cemeteries. Convinced that Kiro is in fact a Balkans war criminal, Dyson sets about trying to prove his hunch and claim the two million euro reward that would come with it. Is Kiro just the escape route that Dyson needs? He certainly thinks so, and that makes him one dangerous sociopath.
From the novel's opening pages its hero, Dyson Devereux, speaks in a calm, detached voice that is more than reminiscent of American Psycho's Patrick Bateman, only here the protagonist drops the names of cheap deodorants and high street brands rather than expensive colognes and exclusive tailors. This juxtaposition, of the supremely erudite, discriminating narrator, stuck in a world where his good taste goes to waste on inexpensive Chinese lunches and snakeskin ties (the latter more an aberration in taste than a compromise) is extremely funny at times - particularly when one first encounters Essex's answer to Patrick Bateman. Dyson's voice develops, however, and drifts between the sociopath amused by humanity's foibles, and the autistic onlooker, bemused by society's customs - think more Don Tillman than Hannibal Lector.
Perhaps fittingly for the Head of Burials and Cemeteries, Dyson appears obsessed by death and war, leering over embalming methods whenever he visits the local mortuary and spending his evenings watching documentaries about wars or reading about weaponry. As with Six Feet Under, the death game proves a suitable background from within which to explore the banality of existence. Indeed, for Dyson the living are no more distinguishable from each other than from the dead. His derisory view of his fellow human beings extends to the point where not only can he not be bothered to remember most of their names, but reduces those he finds most distasteful to the offensive pronoun `it' - a slightly jarring way of demonstrating his contempt for others.
Deindividuation is important in Necropolis, Dyson's inability to recall the names of his colleagues a nod not only to his own insular mentality, but to the stagnant world in which he lives, where sedation is as readily available in the form mind-numbing programming like the X Factor as it is from more obvious sources like heroin, both of which his part-time girlfriend seeks solace in to Dyson's distaste. It might be surprising that such a sneering isolated individual should have a girlfriend of any kind but this is not this sociopath's only relationship. Indeed, Dyson has mastered the fundamentals of human emotion, able very easily to forge connections with others through small pieces of body language trickery, exposing how simple, and how easily manipulated, human connection really is.
The plot in Necropolis sits somewhere between transgressive fantasy and straight action thriller, and this is a fine line to tread. As Dyson boasts of his conquests, the women who simper at one of his smiles, even the incredible plot that sees him locking horns with a Sierra Leon war criminal turned drug dealer and a Balkans war criminal, all reported in his unexcitable monotone, one can't help but be pulled towards a transgressive reading, which has Dyson as a fantasist in the ilk of Tyler Durden's narrator. However, as the text progresses, one is forced, unexpectedly, to read it more as a realist thriller. Read in this light, the novel begins to resemble something more akin to Jeff Lindsay's Dexter books. This is fairly successful, although as the novel reaches its denouement, there is a slight lack of peril for Dyson, who appears to sail through most challenges calmly and with little chance of his world caving in on him. That said, the balancing act that Portman attempts to pull off here is a tricky one, and he cuts a definite path between the two genres, which makes Necropolis very much its own beast.
Dyson is well written for the most part and the satellite characters that surround him are disdainfully drawn, mere paper thin projections as seen through Dyson's eyes. The writing is crisp, suiting Dyson's logical, sneering voice. Occasionally too many adjectives are levered into a sentence, or a needlessly ornate word is misused, but these instances of overwriting are rare and concentrated near the book's beginning. Another minor gripe is the phonetic dialogue, which is used with a handful of supplementary characters, and is at times a little frustrating (although some readers will have more tolerance for this than others).
As is often the case with sociopathic characters, Dyson is able to highlight - to comic effect - some of the flaws in the way `normal' people live their lives. Here this is less through Dyson's own behaviour and more through his observations about the characters around him. The funniest moments, however, are probably those were Dyson's incongruence with his surroundings are most keenly felt. Necropolis is an intelligent novel, which to some extent gets caught between trying mesh a fast-paced plot with more thoughtful satire. Portman understands the genres in which he writes, however, and does well to bring the two together. While the plat may, at times, struggle to meet the demands of both genres, Portman's characterisation of Dyson works well and this mitigates, to an extent, any cracks that show in what is an ambitious novel....more
The House of Silk (2011) is the first Sherlock Holmes book to be officially endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, Anthony Horowitz claiming to have writThe House of Silk (2011) is the first Sherlock Holmes book to be officially endorsed by the Conan Doyle estate, Anthony Horowitz claiming to have written not a pastiche, but a new Sherlock Holmes novel. The House of Silk is truly two cases, the titular and The Case of the Man in the Flat Cap. The two cases are set in motion when a Bohemian art dealer visits Holmes in Baker Street, fearing for his life, and being stalked by a scar-faced man who lurks around every corner. Holmes and Watson are quickly drawn into a sprawling case of twists and turns and, what starts as the fallout from an art deal gone awry, quickly turns into something more sinister, with conspiracy and scandal threatening to “tear apart the very fabric of society”.
A big Sherlock Holmes fans himself, Horowitz recreates Conan Doyle's style effectively and has clearly spent a long time ensuring the novel is of the highest quality. He does, though, afford himself the opportunity to fine tune elements of the work for a modern audience. The novel finds a new and progressive attitude towards social conscience, particularly in reference to the Baker Street Irregulars, with sentiments more akin to Dickens than Conan Doyle frequently expressed. This brings out a warmer, less arrogant side of Holmes. Indeed, Holmes as a whole appears a more balanced individual than the character drawn by Conan Doyle; here he lacks the single-minded harshness - the self-centred petulance - that created such a dichotomous and fascinating character originally. There is a mistrust of authorities and those with power too, and it is suggested that, rather than a few bad eggs, corruption is endemic and inextricably linked with power – a position which smacks of a more modern state of mind.
Horowitz captures the atmosphere of Victorian London and the voice of Watson wonderfully, without ever becoming clichéd or creating a caricature. There is the odd slip in the prose; an Americanism here and there, some modern phraseology, but nothing that one might grumble at. As for the story itself, although the novel is noticeably longer than any of Conan Doyle's four Holmes novels, the plot carries it along at a fair old pace and, whilst the middle of the book sags just a little, it is certainly well-paced by modern standards. There are, however, some indulgences when it comes to the characters included in the story with Moriarty and, to a lesser extent, Mycroft's appearances feeling a little unnecessary to the plot.
The two cases tie together pleasingly at the novel's conclusion and, although one strand is a little too predictable and the other a little too obtuse, the plot is well constructed and forms a delightful mystery. Horowitz has taken Holmes's world and subtly recreated it for a modern audience; the essence of the characters and the world they inhabit maintained, whilst a modern sensibility is allowed to seep, effortlessly, into the framework of the story. There are one or two inconsistencies that will irritate devout Holmes fans but, on the whole, The House of Silk is an excellent addition to the Holmes canon and, whilst never breaking new ground, provides a rollicking new adventure for fans to enjoy. ...more
The Slap (2008) is Christos Tsiolkas’s divisive novel about the use of corporal punishment to discipline children, and a scathing indictment of MelbouThe Slap (2008) is Christos Tsiolkas’s divisive novel about the use of corporal punishment to discipline children, and a scathing indictment of Melbourne’s middle classes and their failings. The titular event occurs in the first chapter when Hugo, a stroppy four-year-old, acts up at a suburban barbecue and Harry, one of the guests, takes discipline into his own hands, slapping Hugo across the face. Hugo’s new age parents are furious with Harry and the barbecue dissolves into bitter accusations. The subsequent chapters explore the slap’s consequences from the varying perspectives of eight kaleidoscopic characters who attended the barbecue, one chapter devoted to each.
From the novel’s promotion and blurb one expects a sensitive, bold, and insightful discussion about the disciplining of children in the modern, politically correct world. Sadly, there are really only two polarized views expressed: ‘it’s always wrong to hit a child’, and ‘the child needed disciplining – someone had to step in’, neither of which are explored in adequate depth. Instead the novel becomes a study of Melbourne’s emerging middle class; its uncomfortable multiculturalism, pretensions, prejudices, desires, and failings. The characters depicted cover a broad spectrum; Tsiolkas attempting to capture the truly cosmopolitan nature of Australia in the modern world, and exploring the underlying tensions between the different groups. Despite their varying cultural heritage the characters are, almost without exception, self-centred, judgemental, lascivious, conflicted, and humourless. Reflective of small sections of society though they may be, one lacks any empathy for such an infuriating ensemble, and quickly loses interest in their perspective. Equally, although one is presented with different character’s perspectives, their motivations and behavioural drivers are often unclear, or poorly explained.
The quality of the prose is variable, with simple grammatical mistakes and poorly constructed sentences affecting the novel’s fluency. Within the first few pages it becomes clear that Tsiolkas is writing provocatively, unnecessary foul language littering the work and graphic sexual scenes, which in no way propel the plot, occurring in nearly every chapter.
Although the novel is promoted as a controversial and thought-provoking work, the central event and the subsequent discussions around it fail to conjure any strong moral or intellectual conflict. Put simply, one is rarely challenged, a major failing from a POV novel that purports to deal with an important moral issue. The novel’s conclusion was particularly disappointing, with some characters’ behaviour feeling particularly affected and no final, cutting observation from the author on his characters or their behaviour and personal ideologies. Far from a piece of sharp social commentary, The Slap reads as a soap opera – its inclusion on the long/short-lists for various literary prizes belying this fact. ...more
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is a philosophical novel concerned with existentialism and Nietzschean theories. Much of the plot centres aroThe Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) is a philosophical novel concerned with existentialism and Nietzschean theories. Much of the plot centres around the Prague Spring of 1968 and the communist years that followed, tracing the lives of four major characters; Czech surgeon Tomas and his wife, Tereza, one of Tomas’s lovers, Sabina, and later one of Sabina’s lovers, Franz. However, the plot is sparse and secondary to the exploration of the novel’s central themes of love and miscommunication, being and lightness.
An assuredly postmodern novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being breaks from narrative tradition featuring neither a linear plot nor fully rounded characters, instead providing a series of episodes in the characters lives interspersed with the author’s philosophical ruminations. This fragmented structure is used to suggest the mayhem of modern life, leaving the author as the only reliable voice within the novel. Despite this the lives of Kundera’s characters are significant, with the oppression and lack of choice under the communist regime compared to the suffocating determinism of life and lack of meaningful choice on a wider scale. In relation to aspirational politics, the novel sets forward the idea that the world’s ills are all born from the desire for a utopian ideal, and is full of similarly intriguing paradoxes.
Though The Unbearable Lightness of Being deals predominantly with the human condition Kundera does not over-sentimentalise humans. Indeed, as a fierce advocate of animal rights much of his discourse is underpinned by the idea that humans can claim no superiority over the natural world, that essentially they are not special or significant in any substantial way.
Whether through translation or by design the language is plain and uncomplicated, the sentences sharp and without flair. The narrative is consistently punctuated by Kundera, as the narrator, commenting on his own creations (the story, the characters) - his intrusions analogous to the government’s interference in citizen’s lives. As the novel progresses one becomes increasingly attuned to Kundera’s turn of phrase and philosophical reasoning, leading to a greater understanding of his arguments as a whole, and lessening the grating effect of the dispassionate prose....more
London Fields (1989) is a murder mystery, in reverse. Set in London in 1999, with an undefined crisis on the horizon, the story follows the sexually sLondon Fields (1989) is a murder mystery, in reverse. Set in London in 1999, with an undefined crisis on the horizon, the story follows the sexually savvy Nicola Six, who has a premonition about her own death, as she tries to identify and entice her murderer. A willing murderee, Nicola develops relationships with the yobbish Keith Talent, a petty criminal and darts enthusiast, and the affluent but weak Guy Clinch, driving both men to sexual distraction in an attempt to propel one of them to murder. The story is relayed by a fourth character; dying American author Samson Young, who socialises with the characters, drawing inspiration for his final book from their ‘story’.
As with Amis’s previous work the lack of motive becomes central to the novel, creating, more than a whodunnit, a whydunnit. An uneasy air hangs over the characters determined path, with Nicola’s desire for death never fully explored. Indeed, as much as a personal death wish Nicola comes to represent the world itself, a willing murderee, longing for death but in need of assistance. Intricately conveyed, the novel’s themes have to be carefully picked from the tangled plot. What at first appears to be a meditation on the potential for nuclear holocaust and its devaluation of human life slowly becomes a metaphor for the act of writing, and the death of the author and of literature itself. The postmodern condition remains under constant consideration in a variety of ways, for example, the abdication of social responsibility due to the filtration of information and stupefying effect of television.
The dialogue and some of the set pieces are assuredly majestic; Amis creates the most acutely observed atmosphere and, through Keith in particular, crafts colloquial discourse of almost poetic brilliance. The depiction of deprived London and its inhabitants is magnificent, engulfing one in the texture and language of poverty, and contrasting it with its polar opposite – a stark reminder of the London’s bizarre juxtaposition, where the lives of rich and poor are so intertwined. As in Money, Amis includes an authorial presence, in this case Samson Young (in addition to absent character Mark Asprey, often referred to as M.A.) who, far from enjoying Amis’s narrative authority, is unable to fully get to grips with the situation. Unlike the unruly lives of his characters though, Amis retains tight control of the most complex of structures, comfortably disguising the skill needed to create such a multilayered work.
Like much of Amis’s writing London Fields courts controversy; it was excluded from the Booker Prize shortlist because some members of the judging panel were offended by perceived sexism within the novel. Certainly, the work is searingly written and does not compromise on its candid and experimental inclinations, although sometimes these are more justifiable than others. Aside from the possible offence some readers might find in the novel the main complaint is undoubtedly the plot itself. Despite being beautifully written, the characters are exaggerated versions of reality and the vehicle they inhabit is at times slow moving and a little tedious. But these are auxiliary issues when compared to the richness and depth of the text as a whole. ...more
The Hum and the Shiver (2011) is the first novel in Alex Bledsoe's Tufa series. Set in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, the novel builds on an oThe Hum and the Shiver (2011) is the first novel in Alex Bledsoe's Tufa series. Set in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, the novel builds on an old Appalachian myth, and imagines a race of mysterious, dark-haired people, known as the Tufa. Although their origins have long since been lost, the insular community of mountain folk desperately cling to the traditions of their ancestors, passing their mystic songs from one generation to the next. The novel centres on Bronwyn Hyatt, a young Tufa woman, who has recently returned from the Iraq war following a harrowing accident and abduction. Touted as a war hero by the outside world, Bronwyn is known in the Tufa community, from her teenage years, as a promiscuous hell-raiser. The plot follows Bronwyn as she recovers from her injuries, relearning the Tufa ways and dealing with old acquaintances, new suitors, and an underlying threat to both her family and the wider Tufa community.
Bledsoe stitches the Tufa's world neatly to our own, creating a patchwork reality that one can easily identify with. Indeed, the novel has much to say about our own reality; from the role America plays in the world, to the treatment of minorities and the vulnerable by those who struggle to deal with diversity and difference. At its heart though, The Hum and the Shiver is about family, tradition, and community, about making one's way in the world whilst respecting one's roots. Bronwyn provides the perfect centre point for this, a rebellious youth who feels oppressed by the weight of her family's history. The themes are universal, and the supporting characters are drawn sensitively and provide identifiable conflicts for Bronwyn, whether they are Tufa or not.
The plot is subtly constructed, moving at a gentle pace as it creates the world of the Tufa. This is a sign of an author comfortable with his style and respectful of his audience, never feeling the need to contrive scenes of explosive energy to hold the attention, but instead delicately relaying a tale of intrigue and mystery. Sadly, in contrast to the measured style there are phrases that grate and sentences that are poorly constructed. These are infrequent but glaring, and inhibit the overall flow of the story. Towards the end of the novel too, some characters begin to lose shape, acting to propel the plot rather than maintaining behaviour consistent with the personality drawn for them.
In Bronwyn, Bledsoe has created an engaging character and one that many readers will be drawn to. However, although Bronwyn is portrayed as a rebel and someone who has enjoyed a wild and reckless youth, this is occasionally overdone. In particular, one finds the frequent sexual references wearing and more than that, indicative of a mild lechery on the author's part towards his provocatively created protagonist. That aside, the novel works well as an introduction to the Tufa series, and Bledsoe's subtle blend of realism and fantasy makes the work accessible to a wide audience. ...more
Martin Amis: The Biography (2011) is the first biography of one of Britain's pre-eminent novelists of the late-twentieth century. Famous as much for hMartin Amis: The Biography (2011) is the first biography of one of Britain's pre-eminent novelists of the late-twentieth century. Famous as much for his lifestyle as for his literary achievements, Martin Amis is a hugely provocative and controversial writer, and bridges the gap between popular culture and literary writing in a way that few, if any, authors have done in the past. Following on from his well received biography of Kingsley Amis, Richard Bradford was tasked with tackling the fascinating life of Amis Jnr. Indeed, if anything, Bradford's intimate knowledge of Amis snr. is a hindrance, seeping, redundantly, into the work too often. Overall though, Bradford aims to deliver a biography firmly based on an exploration of Martin’s fiction, carefully correlating Amis’s experience with the characters and tone of his novels.
Having written his own autobiography, Experience, in 2000 there is very little new information about Martin's personal life in Bradford's biography; its true strength lying in the interviews the biographer conducts with Amis himself, and select members of his circle, perhaps most notably Christopher Hitchens. However, there are parts of Amis's life which are not given proper space; the death of his alcoholic sister at the age of 40, his friendship with the rough-and-ready Rob Henderson, a relationship that, arguably, was as influential to Amis's fiction as the one with Hitchens, which is given far more space. Beyond eulogising about Amis's writing, Bradford presents Martin as a man of almost flawless character; a superb father, sensitive, handsome, gregarious, and magnificently witty. There is more than a hint of doe-eyed hero-worship here and one finds it impossible to accept, given what one already knows of his life, that Amis is as straight-forward and all round pleasant a character as that. In keeping with his patronizing polemic, Bradford, as an interviewer, shies away from the difficult questions; he never gets to the bottom of Amis's relationship with women – was he a sophisticated seducer, or did he just fall into a string of relationships?, he doesn't push for a fuller answer about Martin's molestation as a child, or his father's supposed alcoholism – events which must have had a significant impact on Amis’s development. On top of this, in his evaluation of Amis’s literary credentials, Bradford chooses to ignore Amis’s biggest critics, providing a frightfully one-sided view of the man. Tellingly, every book listed in the bibliography is penned by Amis, Martin.
The writing is unforgivably sloppy with contradictions aplenty, frequent grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and sentences whose meanings are unintentionally ambiguous. Too often Bradford sprays literary superlatives around without offering deeper evaluation and criticism of the work in question, and one soon becomes immune to the incessant hyperbole. Indeed, each novel is introduced with such grand acclamations from Bradford that it is difficult to gauge exactly where each sits in Amis's canon, or how each was received by the wider circle of critics on publication. When relaying biographical events, Bradford commits the cardinal sin of slipping into the realm of invention; supplementing factual accounts with unrecorded dialogue to emphasise a point.
Some of Bradford's critical assertions seem a little off the mark and are rarely supported by evidence, or clear arguments, and one gets the impression that once he catches hold of an idea the biographer pushes forward with it obstinately regardless of the facts. However, Bradford draws neat parallels between Martin's characters and the people he spent time with, perhaps placing a little too much emphasis on this as an explanation for the development of his prose, but still providing interesting observations. He also manages to recreate the atmosphere of Martin's social circle, which he flourished under during the 1970s and 80s, very well. It is rumoured that Bradford and Amis fell out during the writing of the book, certainly this is not a fully-authorised biography, and it is suspected that the delay in publication was due to legal wrangling on Amis's side. Sadly, whether through authorial reticence, or legal pressure, the result is a biography without a cutting edge, which in no way illuminates Amis's life or work beyond currently available information. Amis is a complex character, and it will take a tenacious biographer to truly unravel the mythology that surrounds him, Bradford is not that man, and one suspects that the necessary degree of freedom and detachment to undertake such a proceeding may not be afforded a prospective chronicler of Amis's work while Martin is still writing. ...more