Saturday, 22 November 2008

All In The Mind (Alastair Campbell)

--The blurb--
"The novel details the lives of its main protagonists over one weekend. There is Arta, an asylum seeker, who, having fled Kosovo, is raped in her adopted homeland; Emily, a teacher who cannot come to terms with the terrible facial scars she suffered in a house fire; David, whose abandonment as a child by his father seems to be the cause of his depression; and Ralph, whose alcoholism threatens not only his marriage but his career in the Cabinet. Linking them all is Professor Martin Sturrock, a revered and successful psychiatrist whose devotion to his patients hides the fact that he is fighting a few serious problems of his own."
blurb by Tom Harris at the Daily Mail

--The review--
The start of this novel is not especially enamouring in terms of its style; it seems clunky, awkward, and with too much 'telling' rather than 'showing'. However, despite this, there seemed to me to still be a good story in there, and it turned out to be rather fortuitous that I kept on reading. The characters are very realistically painted (although one of the characters, not aged 12-13, occasionally comes out with lines that sound like something I would have written in my diary at this age, which rather goes against the realism aspect), and by the end of the novel there is definitely room for empathy with one or more of the characters. It's difficult to tell, though, how well the 'life-changing' weekend idea really works: could so many people in such challenging situations, all so close to each other, really have revelationary moments almost simultaneously in one weekend that somehow render their lives changed? Can someone really go from apparently sane to totally mad in three days? However, as Campbell (or Alastair, as he requested we call him at the evening with him at WHSmith Paris) gets into his stride with his writing style, gradually the whole scene unfolds more believably, and by the end of the novel, you could well be riveted.

With the exception of the occasionally incongruous thirteen-year-old-girl-style statements, Alastair Campbell also writes very well in the female voice - as any aspiring writer knows, writing as the opposite sex can be a very difficult feat to accomplish. If you read this book without knowing who'd written it, it could have feasibly been written by a die-hard feminist. The sincerity and realism surrounding the women's issues in this novel is a remarkable achievement in itself, and yet when asked on how he attained this state of apparent utter empathy, all the author could say was that it had come very naturally to him, particularly after certain events he had witnessed in Kosovo.

The novel is also particularly diverse in the way in which it is peopled with characters, ranging from a shy young woman who can barely face the world to a high-profile politician. Such diversity requires considerable adaptation both of one's writing style and one's mode of thinking, and it is accomplished most satisfactorily here. The novel also aptly expresses the current state of the British press as, in Alastair's words, the best and worst media in the world.

The novel is not without its failings: I despise name-dropping of companies and brands in novels à la Franzen's The Corrections, as it detracts from their timelessness: it grates on me to know that your sandwich is from Prêt à Manger or that your music player is an iPod, as it limits my own visualisation, which is important to the general reading experience. It also perhaps detracts from the novel's "humanness" by homogenising what people do and use, and given that the humanity of the novel is arguably its most important quality, this is not a point worth glossing over.

It pleased me to know that Alastair has two new novels in the works. He is clearly a valuable addition to the seraglio of contemporary authors, and, more importantly, for his evident skills, rather than for his name.

Other works by Alastair Campbell
The Blair Years

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