Fiction Review

Martin Martin's On the Other Side

(2008) Mark Wernham, Jonathan Cape, 12.99, pbk, 292pp, ISBN 978-0-224-08170-2

This is Wernham's debut novel and a cracking little read it is! A satire on class and the so-called North-South divide (for international readers, in Britain it is sometimes casually considered, for the sake of argument, that people in the south of England are materially better off than people elsewhere; further translations coming up...), the story concerns one Jensen Interceptor, a product of the Duncan-Smith Infant Unit (Iain Duncan-Smith was a short-lived, and largely ineffectual, leader of the Conservative Party in opposition) and of Study Centre 16. He has found himself a job in the Department of Media and Culture (Social Studies Section), mostly carrying out consumer surveys and conducting focus groups, making sure that people are buying enough. He likes nothing better than an evening watching Porn Disco and Monster Trucks while in his Dermo Shower, before going out to Starfucks and snorting a load of Boris (Boris Johnson, a figure of some fun, is the current Mayor of London). But this is a dystopia where you are born into a Life Debt, and your work over time pays this off; people in too much debt (ie. Northerners) are likely to be working in poor conditions in indentured servitude on national 'farms'. Jensen's interviews are also designed to weed out 'terrorists', specifically a group calling themselves the Martin Martinists. Martin Martin was a tv psychic back in 2008 who, seemingly, went crazy one day, spouting prophecies, all of which came true, until his supposed assassination at the hands of the government. Jensen is given a promotion and asked to keep an eye on one of his interviewees, Reg Rankin, leader of the Martin Martinists. Which is all right with Jensen; one of the Martinists is an attractive girl called Claire. But the deeper he penetrates the group, the more weird things start happening to him: he seems to move backwards in time, occupying Martin Martin's headspace, and can see a person's 'back story'. A series of events finds Jensen pretending to be a runaway from a government farm in Norfolk, except that after a number of accidents Jensen discovers that the dividing line between 'us' and 'them' is a very thin one indeed. What really happened to Martin Martin? Is Reg a terrorist? And, if so, what can Jensen do about it? These and other questions all have an answer...

Owing more than a bit to the English dystopian tradition typified by George Orwell's 1984 and Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (the latter of which has clearly influenced this book, from the similarities between Burgess' character Alex and Wernham's Jensen, to the modernist slang-speak in which Jensen expresses himself), this is a bitingly satirical novel executed with real panache. As debuts go, this is a very impressive one and I am more than happy to recommend it to you.

Tony Chester

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