Abigail Padgett's Reviews > The Spoiler

The Spoiler by Annalena McAfee
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Jul 29, 12

Writers really shouldn't write reviews, Readers should write reviews even though writers are also readers. It's an ethical quagmire out of which I crawled momentarily because this book is such a delight!

THE SPOILER, packed with wry wit in nearly every sentence, is in actuality a stealth Aristotelian tragedy. Except the “flawed character” lies not in the protagonist(s), but in a populist voyeurism that devours celebrity scandals like popcorn while remaining unable to find Pakistan on a map. THE SPOILER freeze-frames that tottering moment of critical mass in the late 1990’s, just before “news,” along with the Western social contract, changed overnight.

The novel is a tale of two journalists – 79-year-old Honor Tait, in her time a brilliant war correspondent famous both for her reports from now-iconic fronts and for her dazzling beauty, three husbands and countless affairs, and Tamara Sim, a ditzy young freelancer of seemingly deranged educational background who ekes out a living writing tabloid fill like, “The Pits: Underarm Hair Horror of the Stars!”

In a basement cubicle, Tamara pens shock-jock for Psst!, the Saturday sleaze column of The Monitor, a fictional London newspaper whose denizens and business practices are described with a droll, satiric edge. (If Virginia Woolf were to come back as a humorist, she would write this book.) In contrast, the savaged-by-time Honor struggles alone in a cluttered apartment to confront personal secrets shared with no one now alive. Through an email programming glitch, Tamara is given the plum assignment – a single, coveted interview with the arrogant, reclusive “doyenne of British journalism.” What ensues is a contemporary comedy of errors through which the reader laughs appreciatively on every page while remaining sensible of an underlying sadness. Something is vanishing. It will not be seen again.

American readers will stumble over some of the British idioms and cultural references, and a melodrama-style tendency toward unlikely coincidence occasionally jars, but these are quickly subsumed in the sheer delight of the narrative voice. This is a writer’s novel, the structural scaffolding dead obvious and elegant, the insider intelligence fairly shimmering. The most inconsequential sentence turns out to be quotable.

Honor’s third (jealously possessive and American) husband Tad, for example, is captured in a tiny vignette about the choice of a frame for a Cocteau sketch given to Honor by the artist during their brief affair. “But the proprietorial husband, furious that his wife, whom he had married in their middle years, had ever been close to anyone else, lost out to his peculiarly American deference to fame. It was Tad who eventually chose the unwieldy ebony frame, after a degree of contemplation and dialogue that would not have discredited Plato…”

Annalena McAfee, veteran journalist and editor, knows the world whereof she writes, and writes of it dashingly. But the “pity and terror” are also there, understated and without fanfare, in the hidden lives of both Honor and Tamara. The end of THE SPOILER brings no Aristotelian catharsis; it can’t. The end of this story is the beginning of a new one, the one we’re in.
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