Sunday, 18 September 2011

What (who) I'm reading now

Justin Cartwright is a British author with African roots, who was born in South Africa and educated there and in the USA before doing a degree at Oxford and working in Britain in broadcasting, advertising and film. He draws on all these experiences in his novels.

After Masai Dreaming, his first really successful novel (in 1993) - and a wonderful read - I found his books a bit hit and miss, but lately he seems to just be getting better and better. They're filled with interesting characters and thoughtful reflections about random aspects of contemporary life, written in almost deceptively simple style. Two of my recent favourites have been The Promise of Happiness and To Heaven by Water.

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His latest novel, Other People's Money, has the recent banking crisis and financial meltdown at the heart of its story. It centres on the declining fortunes of the Trevelyan-Tubals (I love this absurd name!), an upper class English private banking family, whose wealth is in jeopardy. Elderly patriarch, Harry Trevelyan-Tubal, is dying in his Matisse-filled mansion in Cap d’Antibes, conveniently unaware of the crisis and of the increasingly desperate measures being taken by his son Julian, his reluctant successor, to save the family from disaster.

Into this scenario Cartwright weaves a colourful, rich cast of characters. He conveys the world of privilege, private yachts and trust funds as vividly as that of those with no money – the latter most memorably in the shape of  ageing playwright and thespian Artair MacCleod, reduced to consuming leaky Cornish pasties while working on his magnum opus and eking out a living staging productions of Thomas the Tank Engine for ‘little, obese, pig-faced kiddies of Cornwall’.

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There are some great female characters too ... The dying patriarch’s much-younger, attractive wife, Fleur, is back in London cavorting with her personal trainer in in a broom cupboard at the local gym while reflecting on her vulnerable future position in the family. And twenty-something cub reporter Melissa is on her first job at a parochial Cornish newspaper, finding herself shifting uncertainly from blogging about cupcakes to becoming caught up in a story of national importance. I thought Cartwright treated them with empathy and intelligence, avoiding simplification.

The story also conveys very well the tension of looming financial disaster, though (thankfully) without boring us with the technicalities of the process – (I'm thinking here of Sebastian Faulks who also used this as a theme for A Week in December but with pages of detailed and mind-numbing explanations of sub primes, hedge funds and collateral debt). An engaging plot intertwines the affairs of all these characters in what is really a comic, satirical novel – intelligent and also highly readable. And as a wee bonus, the novel signs off with a final scene involving a well-known actor that is wildly improbable, but at the same time sweet and comical, and made me laugh out loud.

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Browsing the internet for images for this post, I was reminded of a weekly feature that The Guardian ran a few years back, called Writer's Rooms, which featured a photograph and accompanying description of the places where well-known writers graft away at their novels. I loved this series - mostly because I  loved reading about and seeing the objects that writers surround themselves with in their creative working spaces. I was sorry when it ended, though I guess there's a limit to the number of recognised authors one can feature. Here's the link to Justin Cartwright's writer's room, in the pic above, and from there to the others in the series. 

On an unrelated note, apologies for my previous post having turned into gobbledygook (in some browsers only, it appears). I can't fix it in Edit mode, as it appears correctly there. Of all the weird things Blogger has been up to lately, this is the weirdest.

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