Book notes: Benedictus, Ward, Medvei

Leo Benedictus, The Afterparty (2011)

Here’s a good example of a book which didn’t sound instinctively like something I would enjoy, but which turned out to be well worth a read. The Afterparty tells the overlapping stories of four people over the course of one night: Hugo Marks, an actor whose birthday celebrations provide the backdrop to events; Mellody, his supermodel wife; Calvin Vance, the young pop star to whom Mellody takes a shine; and Michael Knight, a journalist who’s attending the party reluctantly after being given a colleague’s invitation. The actual text of the novel is framed as the work of one William Mendez, whose emails to a prospective agent, Valerie Morrell, alternate with the chapters. Mendez has plenty of ideas for aspects of his novel’s marketing (all of which have made it to the finished version), but is reluctant to reveal his identity; so Morrell calls on a columnist named Leo Benedictus to stand in for him…

A novel as self-referential as The Afterparty risks getting lost in its own cleverness; but there’s such charm (and a certain audacity) in the way Benedictus lays bare the workings of his book that it won this reader over. It also adds another layer to what seems to me the novel’s main theme: the gap between reality and perception. That theme is reflected in the main text by the subtly different glosses which each viewpoint character places on events (the use of a different font for each viewpoint emphasises that, in a way, we’re reading four different stories). It’s also echoed in the novel’s treatment of modern celebrity culture: Calvin is shown not really to understand the world he’s entered (a world exemplified by Mellody, who has been through it all and bears the scars); Hugo is frustrated at the way celebrity has caused him to be perceived to an extent as ‘public property’; Michael is about to find out what it’s like to be in the limelight, when he gets caught up in a tragedy in which perceptions of reality will be all-important.

Add to this some skilful prose (Benedictus is particularly good at creating striking images of rather mundane phenomena), and you have a fine debut in The Afterparty.

Leo Benedictus’s website; Booktrust interview.

Katie Ward, Girl Reading (2011)

Turning now to another fine debut, though one rather different in subject matter and approach. In Girl Reading, Katie Ward imagines the stories behind a number of portraits of girls and women reading; the portraits range in past time from Simone Martini’s Annunciation (1333) to a photograph on Flickr in 2008, and a concluding chapter set in 2060 provides context for the previous six. Ward has a distinctive writing style that creates a strong atmosphere for each of the time periods, and allows her to weave in details very subtly. I’ll single out her portrayal of Gwen –  a girl in love with an artist in 1916, and who sees a rival for her affections in a visiting woman – as one of my favourite moments, but there are plenty more from which I could choose.

The chapters of Girl Reading are not linked overtly (though some of the portraits do appear in later chapters, and it can be nicely disconcerting to see the gap between what later characters think of the subjects and what we’ve seen of them previously); it’s more that there are contrasts and connections in theme and content. For example, Ward shows the variety of functions which the portraits might fulfil – an expression of a political alliance, say, or a tangible reminder of what has been lost. Similarly, literacy represents different things to different characters; the act of creating each portrait has varying significance; and so on. Girl Reading is an intricate tapestry of a book, and one that leaves me with little notion of what Katie Ward may write next, though I do know that I’ll want to read it.

Katie Ward’s website; East Anglian Daily Times interview.

Cornelius Medvei, Caroline: a Mystery (2011)

A journalist is contacted by an old school friend named Shaw, who wants to tell the story of Caroline. This Caroline is the donkey Shaw’s father first encountered on a family holiday and who soon filled a void in his life that he didn’t know existed. The father became devoted to Caroline: took her home, looked after her, taught her to play chess (she turned out to be rather good at it). It was a wonderful period in his life; but, of course, there was always the danger that it wouldn’t last.

Cornelius Medvei’s second novel has a folktale quality about its telling; the city in which it’s set is never named (neither, for that matter, are most of the characters), and there’s a timelessness to its depiction (it’s probably set in the 1980s or thereabouts, but there are few specific details). Nobody bats an eyelid at the outlandish events that take place, which is just as it should be; the novel depends on our ability to take its absurd premise seriously, and it is imagined so solidly that we do.

But where Shaw’s narration pushes the tale one step out of reality, the journalist’s voice which frames the account brings it back in. There’s not much of that voice, but it is subtly different enough to provide a real jolt when we step from one to the other and begin to doubt what we have read. Caroline the donkey may fruitfully be interpreted as a metaphor for an all-consuming interest, under which light Medvei observantly illuminates his protagonist’s situation.

Then again, Caroline may just be a donkey; as the journalist concedes, ‘in this city, private and public life, the ordinary and the fantastic, are mingled everywhere you look.’ Strange things happen, so why not this? In Caroline, Medvei leaves the question open in a small but finely wrought – and very enjoyable – read.

This review first appeared on Fiction Uncovered.

Cornelius Medvei’s top 10 talking animals in literature (Guardian).

1 Comment

  1. On the subject of self-referentiality in the Benedictus, the author turned up in the review below’s comments to debate the point (to a degree). It’s an interesting read. A model in many ways of how to respond to a highly negative review.

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