Fiction Reviews

Breakfast with the Borgias

(2014) D. B. C. Pierre, Hammer, £7.99, pbk, 248pp, ISBN 978-0-099-58624-1


For some people, the opportunity to review a book by a winner of the Booker Prize would be a chance to wallow in edges of greatness. For others, the Booker Prize doesn't always equal greatness (The Bone People anybody?). And for yet more, prizes are just a subjective exercise (don’t get me on the Eurovision Song Contest winners of the last …. years).

D. B. C. Pierre won the Booker in 2003 with Vernon God Little, which I thought I had read, but having looked at a précis online, I know I have not. Described as a black comedy, it looks a bit off my radar, which is saying something.

This book is brought out by the publishing arm of Hammer, which the blurb at the back says is 'the most well-known film brand in the UK'; a claim Rank might dispute. It goes on to say that the books are 'perfect for readers of quality contemporary fiction'. As this is my first foray into this particular imprint …

The book is centred around Ariel Panek, an American academic of Polish background, who is heading for a conference in Amsterdam where he is arranged to have a tryst with one of his students. (For those unsure of the word, try 'dirty week'.) But his plane is diverted to a UK airport (from what I could tell, Stansted) and somehow he ends up in a guesthouse in Suffolk, in the fog. Where his mobile has no signal.

And there he meets the Border family: Leonard and Margot, who come across a bit like Pop and Ma Larkin from The Darling Buds of May (but she knows all about machine intelligence work, Ariel’s speciality); Olivia, who he is attracted to; Jack, a ten-year-old addicted to computer games; and Gretchen, who appears to be an anorexic self-harmer, who possesses the only working mobile, and who appears in his room as he steps out of the shower, dressed only in a pair of floral briefs (Gretchen, not Ariel).

Ariel is desperate to get away, but he is accused of sexual assault on Gretchen: then the police arrive and no one can leave the guesthouse. Meanwhile, Zeva – the student who’s been waiting for Ariel in Amsterdam – starts to receive texts which become both more provocative and whiney, demanding that she send nude photographs of herself to him. But he will not tell her where he is. And then she sees a news headline about a plane crash.

The clue for me came part way through the book, where Ariel decides that the Border (or as he calls them, the Borgia) family were like the cast of hell.

I enjoyed bits of this book, but having worked out the Ariel was dead, my interest was held only in trying to work out how Zeva would discover the truth. It is well written, but a little contrived; it felt more like a mental exercise in creating a modern ghost story.

Peter Young

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