By more than a mile the best book I have read during the pandemic is Tim Finch’s Peace Talks. It is more than that. Although one needs to be wary of superlatives, this could be the best novel written in English so far this century. If I had to describe it in one word I would say, ‘exact’.
It is to give nothing away to tell that the novel is principally about grief, the narrator’s attempt to come to terms with the sudden death of his beloved wife. That is apparent from the first few pages. The widower, a man in late middle age is a peace negotiator. He is engaged as the mediator in prolonged peace talks; between a pair of divided tribes, political parties or territories? It is probably the first although the author is ambiguous about which. He is clear however that the antagonists are of the same Muslim faith. Each side has its share of terrorists.
The talks take place in the grand surroundings of a luxurious alpine resort which is as far removed as it could be from the contested second or third world marketplaces where car bombs routinely explode, and the mutilated bodies of the innocent lie.
The narrator, Edvard, must always be scrupulous not to show by even a millimetre an inclination in favour of either side. Utmost patience and abstention from intervention are, frustratingly, always necessary. Even an unguarded but genuine question, a push or prod however gentle, can give offence, causing a suspension of talks for weeks or more. Edvard has no shortage of helpers. This is the world of translators, sherpas, rapporteurs and drafters of communiqués. He and they, as well as the warring delegations are accommodated, fed, and feted sometimes, on lavish funding by the United Nations. At one point, when the talks seem hopeless, the cultural advisor to Edvard whispers the word, ‘Orientalism’. Among so many of his qualities is the author’s profound exploration of the reasons for differences between peoples, and their histories, colonial and post-colonial, which have shaped or widened those differences. A particularly attractive feature of the narrator, and I would think, the author, is their non-judgmentalism. Fear, conflict, reconciliation rarely, offence not intended but taken, hope, despair, goodwill, irrationality and intergeneration hostility are all parts of human nature. A pacifier can only do what he can do. And this pacifier is trying to pacify himself as he tries to pacify others.
In his mind the narrator is composing a long love letter to his lost wife. It is an inaudible cry of agony, interrupted at times by a sudden silent swift few words of violent railing. The imagery is simple but brilliant: a craftsman, a happy man, the intimacy of social media, ‘…self-deprecation and “I’m a celebrity” rolled up in one little phrase.’ At first we are in the ice-cold mountains. Later the setting is a scene in the Caribbean: a storm comes, ‘more Debussyian than Wagnerian… less a work in heavy oils, more in water colours.’ Then there is reference to the ‘immense ennui of late afternoon in the tropics.’ You can see that this is a book built on vivid contrast as well as reflection and wisdom.
Finch must be a man of curiosity and many interests. Edvard’s brother-in-law plays a cameo role in the book as a famous modern artist, the falsely self-deprecating celebrity. We are taken by him into the elaborately distressed, disused warehouses where fabulously expensive modern works of art are traded and their makers adored at champagne launches. Although concerned with misery, the novel is not without humour. That is found often in situations in which the true self-deprecator, Edvard, as an eligible single man, now finds himself as his friends try to match-make for him.
The reader is told something of the circumstances of the death of Edvard’s wife about halfway through the book. At first I thought this might be a breach of a rule of the anatomy of fiction, that important information is to be carefully rationed and delayed as long as possible. As I read on I could see how the disclosure, like so much else in this novel, was surely timed.
Edvard has had an English education although he has a Nordic parentage. Even a long term devotee of cricket, as this reviewer is, could not take offence at the narrator’s unenthusiastic reference to the game and its association with a particular kind of Englishness with its good, and less so connotations.
No one, especially a reader who may have been involved in dispute resolution, whether professional, or even familial as most parents inevitably are at times, could be other than impressed, perhaps even educated by the persistence and tolerance of Edvard as a peace negotiator.
The ending is, in a strange way, predictable yet unpredictable. For myself I found it entirely satisfying.
The author has apparently published only one other novel, The House of Journalists. It is said that a second novel is much harder to write than a first, especially if the first is a success. I have sent for The House of Journalists. We shall see.
Peace Talks is a work of 60,000 or so words only. If the author had had less time he might have written a much longer book (shades of Blaise Pascal). It is well that the author had all the time he needed to write this outstanding work.
A book with themes of grief and conflict might sound uninviting in a time of pandemic. That is not the case here. This is an assured, and I think, surprisingly reassuring book for all times. The author may have to accept, endure may be more apt, an unasked status of celebrity which this elegant novel will likely impose upon him.
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