(2021) Chris Beckett, Corvus, £16.99, hrdbk, 294pp, ISBN978-1-786-49935-6
A strange introspective new novel from Chris Beckett, author of the impressive, Clarke Award-winning 'Dark Eden' novel and series. It’s only thinly speculative fiction – there’s a jungle with what appear to be small dinosaurs in it, but they’re tangential to the story – and there’s only the barest hint of a plot.
What story there is follows a writer stuck in a cabin in a jungle struggling to write his novel. The jungle could be anywhere but references to colonialism and indigenous tribes suggest South America, though the characters have English names and attitudinally all seem to be from the Home Counties. At some point the writer gets captured by rebels hoping to extract a ransom, but he escapes, meets some locals, has an epiphany of sorts and returns to civilisation to tell of his exploits and rebuild his life.
The story doesn’t lay itself out in that neat, linear framework though, and seems almost randomly dissected into chunks of narrative (or, more usually, observations and introspection) which blur time. After a short while, it becomes relatively straightforward working out when each chunk takes place, but it’s initially confusing and rubs the narrative of any tension (why fret over his capture when you know he’s going to live to tell the tale, for instance). The narrator tells us three times to various points that he wants to write a book without a plot, but he’s struggling to construct it. And as with all books about writers, it’s hard not to view them as semi-autobiographical. Beckett says as much in the acknowledgements section, though since the book opens with the line ‘Tomorrow I’m going to begin my novel’. Maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. The result is a work that often feels indulgent and seems less interested in storytelling than in experimentation.
Previous novels have suggested Beckett can write solid, engaging stories, but this isn’t one of them. As a writing exercise it’s interesting, and there are some nice descriptive passages, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for the protagonist (you have to feel for his long suffering girlfriend) who drifts though the book, and the structure makes it difficult to stay focused for long. Beckett says he wrote the first draft in six weeks: reading it felt much longer. A rare misfire.
See also Ian's take on Tomorrow.
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