This Bleeding City is one of those novels with which you can tell roughly where it’s heading more or less from the outset – not because of any clumsiness on the author’s part, but because the story is so archetypal: young man goes off to seek his fortune, and discovers that what he thought he wanted wasn’t necessarily so great after all. The context for this particular telling of that story is the City of London (where Alex Preston himself works) in the run-up to the recent financial crisis.
To fill in more specifics: whilst at university, Charlie Wales’s ambition is to work in the City; to truly become part of the smart set in whose circles he moves; to meet the expectations of Vero, the beautiful French girl whom he loves. On graduating, Charlie moves to London with Vero and another university friend, Henry; and eventually finds work at a hedge fund. But Charlie struggles with the demands of the job… and you may be able to guess much of the rest (though probably not all of it; the story isn’t quite as straight forward as you might anticipate).
When you know the broad trajectory of a novel – and the prologue of This Bleeding City shows explicitly that tragedy is on the horizon, so there’s no getting away from that knowledge – the telling has to carry even more of the weight; Preston does a pretty good job here, on the whole. Having said that, some aspects of his style can be difficult to warm to; for example, his dialogue can sound too much like speechifying:
‘[…]I’m sorry that I’m not planning a play for the Festival or writing reviews for a highbrow theatrical website, but we all made those choices, and it’s trite but true that it was a long chain of little decisions, a series of mistakes and ill-chosen priorities and… and we ended up here. We had so many ideals, so many dreams, and we ended up settling for money.’ (32)
I’m not generally keen on dialogue that draws attention to itself, as this does. But there is a way in which it works quite well, because it foregrounds the fictionality, emphasising that there’s a greater story behind the specific one being told here. And there’s narrative power in Preston’s writing nonetheless; it’s not so much that particular images or sentences stand out (though there is a description of a sunset which is striking, albeit less because of the words on the page than the way Preston depicts it as a rare moment in which the workers of the City can unite in taking their minds off their jobs), but that the text as a whole has the pull of good storytelling.
The main weakness of This Bleeding City, I’d say, is that the characterisation of Charlie doesn’t quite come together. He seems to me a very self-aware sort, who sees shortcomings in his chosen career path even early on (as an example, consider the passage of dialogue I quoted earlier, which is spoken by Charlie to Vero); he doesn’t strike me as the type who would carry on doing something for so long when he knew in his heart that it wasn’t right for him (or, if he is that type, it doesn’t come across strongly enough in the novel). And, since Charlie’s character is the fulcrum of the book, this can’t help but dent its success to an extent
So, This Bleeding City has its flaws – but it’s still a good read for all that, and one I’d recommend. I’ll be interested to see where Alex Preston goes next with his writing.