March 07 09
I have two exceptionally short reviews in today’s Guardian.
While I am not a huge fan of airport fiction, I do read it occasionally. An example I am honour-bound to admit I enjoyed is Gorky Park, by Martin Cruz Smith; I also note that it is one of the very few instances of the genre that was not better as a film (The Ipcress File is another).
Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 has been billed as the “new” Gorky. It is not. If Gorky Park makes readers feel they have experienced the Soviet Union, Child 44 is more like being trapped at the pub with a pontificating know-it-all who once met a Russian.
The book was shortlisted for a Costa and longlisted for the Man Booker. It’s a good reminder that every prize throws up the occasional mistake: in the 1980s, for example, Lawrence Durrell’s awful Monsieur won the James Tait Black Memorial award, and Constance – not much better – was shortlisted for the Booker, presumably to make up for the fact that his masterful early work had been completely ignored in Britain (something I discuss in my essay on Durrell scheduled for publication this year in Scribner’s British Writers Retrospective series).
The inclusion of Child 44 seems to go a step further towards the corrosion of value among UK literary prizes, however. While it’s true that the Costa has had a tendency even since its days as the Whitbread towards “pulp anthropology” (by which I mean low-brow fiction with a lot of meticulous, high-brow research), for the Man Booker committee to stoop so low as to include this tenner dreadful is both a surprise and a grave disappointment. My review is here.
The Girl Who Was Going to Die is an odd book, mixing challenging prose with some otherwise very flat satire. Author Glyn Maxwell has a remarkable ability to capture spoken English of practically any register and to deliver it to the page with every inflection intact, perhaps the result of his long career in the theatre. His decision to write the book only in dialogue means he must be sure of his skill.
He must also be sure of his readers who, asked to forego the comforts of explicative prose, will have to “write” a certain amount of the book for themselves as they fill in what will appear to many as blanks.
In other words, it is a demanding performance for both writer and reader – and yet Maxwell has otherwise written a very un-demanding book: the story is rather dull, and centres on a facile attack on reality TV and the fatuity of the tabloid media. Given that the satire on celebrity culture is jettisoned about two-thirds into the book, I question whether he has very much to say on the matter in my review, here.