First, a quote from the novel under review. The context: it is a flashback scene of the behaviour of a character at a birthday celebration for her aged mother. She is confessing her bulimia to a crowded room:
‘I make myself sick! I vomit! I vomit! I vomit! I lock myself in the lavatory while you’re all stuffing your faces and I put my fingers down my throat! I vomit! I vomit! I vomit!’ she had cried aloud, as she waved her long, prehensile hands in the air.
We shall skate over the use of the word ‘prehensile’ to describe hands, which are all, unless deformed, prehensile anyway, and concentrate on the character’s speech. Somewhat histrionic, would you say? A little bit unlikely? We all know bulimics, but in the vast majority of cases we do so unknowingly, for it is a condition that is suffered in shame and silence. As for the rhythms of speech, has anyone ever heard anyone talk like that? And, for your information, the character’s name is, hilariously, Frigga. Ever met anyone called that?
It is the novelist’s job to spin a new world out of recognisable elements. Even if the novel is set in another galaxy, or another dimension, there must be some connection to the reader’s experience of the world. And there should be a degree of expertise, enough knowledge about certain systems to encourage plausibility. So when, as happens here, we meet a practising doctor so incompetent that he can only, upon examining a corpse at 8.45 a.m., determine the time of death as ‘some time between 12.30 and 8’, our disbelief is awakened.
But then, by the time we reach that particular sentence, our disbelief will have been on the qui vive for about 70 pages, ever since the opening line of the book (‘ “George!” said Esmeralda, in a more than usually irritable tone’), which, in its clunky, honking way suggests an enthusiastic 12-year-old trying his or her hand at a work of fiction for the first time.
The odd thing is that this is not Nigel Williams’s first go at writing a novel. It is, at the very least, his 17th, and you would have thought that he might have learned some of the basic tricks of writing, and not only those outlined above, but others, such as avoiding weird lurches of register, basic errors of fact (Mars is not in another galaxy), flogging jokes to death and sloppy grammatical howlers. It is, like almost every other book by Williams, set in south-west London, involves poison and people with names like George and Esmeralda, who drink parsnip wine, whatever that is. And I suppose if you liked Williams’s other books you’ll like this; maybe even think that it is, as the blurb suggests, ‘screamingly funny’. But frankly, I’ve never read a worse novel in my life — and I am including A.A. Gill’s first novel — and why an editor didn’t send this back with the words ‘do it again’ is beyond me.
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