The nice and the good
This is mainly a story about secrets and the descent into some kind of suburban inferno – it starts out with a bang (literally) and ends, as the poem goes, with a whimper. I’d like to say it’s about secrets and their consequences but, as far as I’m concerned, it was too easy on the latter. But more on that later.
It’s a third person narrative but, as it seems to all happen around John Ducane, I can’t help but wonder whether first person wouldn’t have been better suited. Sure, the omniscience of the 3rd person allows you to look into every aspect of the characters’ minds and hearts, but 1st person would have imprinted into it more heart, more doubt – and perhaps more blurred, jagged edges. As it is, the story is rounded and clean-cut – for 3 quarters of the book it seems to go on the premise that life is a mess of intricacies and unexpected moments while, during the last part it’s all cleaned up and delivered in the form of a conventional happy ending with too little ambiguity to be believable.
I started out with the bad and it probably sounds like I didn’t enjoy the read, however, truth be told, I enjoyed it a whole lot more than I expected. Firstly, it was quite gripping, starting with the bang of Radecheey’s suicide through which we are introduced to the comfy lives of British public servants, their wives and friends. Octavian and Kate are a happily married couple (at least to an outsider’s eye; there’s a lot to be said about their marriage in relation to the book’s title) and they gradually welcomed to their country house widow Mary Clothier and her son Pierce, divorcee Paula Birane and her twins (Paula’s ex is working with Octavian), Theo – Octavian’s older brother, Willy Kost – a friend who has lived through the horror of Dachau (it takes place in the 60s) and during weekends John Ducane, Octavian’s colleague and Kate’s would-be lover.
Of course, the cohabitation of such a large group of people naturally triggers conflicts, domestic intrigues and fights – but also a great deal of warmth and friendship. The investigation led by Ducane into Radeechy’s suicide seems to be what gets the ball rolling, but it felt like too much of a contrivance (black magic included). This is, after all, a human drama and the element of investigation doesn’t add much to the characters or to their stories and the reveal of Radeechy’s motives is distinctly anti-climactic.
The pace is generally alert, the number of characters and their alternation really keeps you on your toes for most of the book, but, by the end, it’s quite clear that most of them are two-dimensional: John with his obsession to do the right thing, to do good, Mary – who can only come across as rather dull, Paula and her guilt, Pierce and his behaviour ruled by teenage hormones, Kate and her sunny niceness, Jessica and her love/obsession with John etc. They each live in a very snug bubble for most of the book that’s why the ending (except for Paula’s story – that flowed naturally, organically) feels out of character for almost everybody and (again) anti-climactic for me. But at least the road there is pretty damn great.
Very cool NYT review – I found it insightful and interesting, even if I don’t agree 100%.