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Review: Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota

Ours are the Streets by Sunjeev Sahota border=
Imtiaz Raina is a happily married man, young father, moderate Muslim, and British Asian. He is also a suicide bomber. Well, almost. Ours are the Streets (2011) is Sunjeev Sahota’s debut novel, and the story of Imtiaz, a young man from Sheffield who, following the death of his father, tries to find an identity for himself back in Pakistan – from where his family originate, and some still live. His search for identity brings him to radical Islam, however, and when he returns to Britain he is a changed man. Becka, his British wife, quails at the change in her husband and soon Imtiaz, soon separated from his wife and daughter, is more isolated than ever. As the days tick down until he plans to blow up a local shopping centre in Sheffield, Imtiaz begins to record his final thoughts in a journal – a way of reaching out to those lost to him, and recording his own personal story.

Save for a few short lines, there is very little sign in the narrative of Imtiaz’s genuine estrangement from the British society in which he has grown up – he appears well-adjusted, with a wife and child, settled and without suffering from any particular marginalisation. In fact, more than anything it appears to be the death of his father that sparks his need to connect with his roots and his subsequent radicalisation (which is also largely glossed over). This style of narration, where all keys to the supposed plot are unwritten, quite possibly suggests both that much of the narrative Imtiaz writes for himself comes from within, and that Ours are the Streets is not truly a story of radicalisation but of a young man who, like many before him, finds himself hopelessly lost in the world and in need of direction to fight off the nonchalant apathy he feels towards the rather dull and straight-forward existence into which he has fallen. For Imtiaz, though, even the potent single-mindedness of jihad cannot truly engage him, and, like Meursault before him, he is pushed in one direction after another by those with a will greater than his own. Put simply, what Imtiaz wants is a place in the world and a story to call his own. In this way, Ours are the Streets is far from being a ‘terrorism’ novel.

Imtiaz’s ennui is particular to those torn between cultures. One suspects that many British Asians will identify with Imtiaz when he states that he "felt fine rooting for Liverpool, in a quiet way, but not England", and torn as he ends up "defending Muslims against whites and whites against Muslims". This lack of belonging is an undercurrent in Imtiaz’s life until the death of his father, which leads to him visiting his parents’ homeland. The sections in Pakistan and Kashmir, as Imtiaz finds a heritage and sense of belonging that he yearns for, are strong – the descriptions of the simple life of the protagonist’s remote family, the dusty roads, hard labour, and smiling poverty that he experiences, create a really fertile atmosphere for Imtiaz to ‘find himself’ and become radicalised. How realistic or how sugar-coated Sahota’s and Imtiaz’s reporting of his Asian experience are is impossible to tell, but one suspects this is the view of a man longing for identity and buying into the myths about the ‘simple life’ sold to the disenfranchised. It is easy, however, to appreciate the sense of identity that Imtiaz finds in a place where he always referred to as "so and so's grandson or such and such's nephew.” Indeed, the radicalisation that takes place on Imtiaz’s trip is perhaps less about hating the West, and more about wanting to fit in with this new found heritage – disassociating himself from the West in the eyes of his family and new friends back in Pakistan and proving to them that he is one of them and not, as they might suggest, a Westernised Muslim, who is as foreign to their homeland as visitors who more visibly stand out.

The narrative is supposed to be Imtiaz’s journal: his last testimony and a few precious words for the loved ones he leaves behind. However, this conceit falters almost instantly as the journal jumps from addressing Imtiaz’s mother and his young daughter to describing sex acts he received in dark alleys as a student. As the novel unfolds, the journal as a literary device all but falls apart, with the narrator drifting off into inappropriate and unlikely diversions, and the general idea being ignored by Sahota when it suits the plot. For large parts the narration is written as if spoken, too, and time and frame become blurred, not to mention the incongruence of having large chunks of plot inserted into the, presumably emotive, writings of a man about to depart from this world. The biggest problem, however, is that the author attempts to show the increasing paranoia of his protagonist and the shift in his psyche from outsider to violent militant, in a re-shaping, or at least questioning, of reality reminiscent of American Psycho. However, as the journal is supposedly written after Imtiaz’s radicalisation and in his final days, his mind-set, and thus his reporting of events, should spring from this perspective, rather than the more sympathetic one that Sahota affords his narrator. This give the author a real problem, one that he never really gets to grips with.

Aside from this evident problem, Imtiaz as a character is disconnected enough from his actions (and life) to be neither likeable nor unlikeable. He is, however, very human – even if his (humanising) struggles with daily life are largely glossed over. His occasional breaks into humour show the cheeky kid he is inside and at all turns he tries to do the right things by the people who he cares most about at the time (first Becca and his daughter, and later his brothers in (radical) Islam). This unthinking co-operation on his part makes his actions almost amoral, conveying neither positive nor negative traits about the narrator, again reminiscent of Meursault’s indifferent compliance in The Outsider. In keeping with this disconnected stance, Ours are the Streets trades little on affecting the reader’s emotions, save for a small emotional kick towards the novel’s conclusion. Another sign of the resigned way Imtiaz is carried along by the momentum towards goals set out by others is the increasingly frequent use of ‘ameen’ to close paragraphs, almost like the persistent refrain of ‘so it goes’ that marks each death in Slaughterhouse-Five. Here the technique feels hollow somehow, perhaps reflecting Imtiaz’s own lack of engagement with his own radicalisation, or perhaps simply indicating a half-formed idea on the author’s part.

In truth, quite a lot of the novel feels underdeveloped, although, again, whether this is a stylistic choice or not it is a little hard to tell. The result, however, is a fictional reality that feels rather thin and is frequently unconvincing. The prose, too, is sloppy in places and this slowly drains the reader’s confidence in Sahota’s abilities as the pages drift by. There is certainly something to the novel – the blending of the Angry Young Man narrative with the idea of radical Islam is a decent concept and, while he is impossible to truly understand, Imtiaz represents a group of people (young, torn between cultures) that is worth exploring in fiction. Sadly, the execution is not good enough here, and Sahota fails to develop the things that might make Ours are the Streets stand out. Instead, what is left is a fairly predictable, even clichéd, story of extremism which does very little to challenge the reader.

To be completely honest, I didn't get a lot from this: I didn't find the plot enlightening in any way and the prose was fairly standard fare, nothing to particularly engage.

Useful Links
Reviews of Ours are the Streets on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Ours are the Streets on Amazon (US)

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Review: Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy

Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy book cover
Capitalism: A Ghost Story (2014) is a short collection of polemical essays from Booker prize winning writer, Arundhati Roy. Though they vary in scope, each essay is a biting denouncement of the ravenous capitalism that is consuming modern India, sweeping aside the many that stand in its way. In a country where one hundred people own assets equivalent to a quarter of the country’s GDP, this is an important topic at an important time and, for Roy, everyone and everything is a target, from mining corporations to the legacy of Gandhi and Mandela, the government to NGOs – all are under suspicion here. Outraged, sensationalist, passionate: this is a book to engage a Western audience and turn its eyes to the atrocities to natural justice being perpetrated in modern India.

The picture of India that Roy reports is a troubling one, which is not frequently enough reported on in the Western press. In Roy’s India, corporations suck the natural resources from beneath the feet of the masses, turning a people’s country into profit. The status quo is maintained by divisive politics that split the billion-strong population, and the knowledge that any resistance by the dispossessed is brutally quelled by state-sponsored militia, as money is syphoned into the pockets of a select few. It’s a not unfamiliar story, but one that is told with passionate outrage by Roy.

Her critique is not restricted to demonstrating how the country’s resources are being stripped, either; Roy also laments corporate philanthropy and the dulling of genuine dissention. She writes well on the construction of acceptable causes for the disaffected to champion, highlighting particularly the neatly packaged women’s rights charities, which Roy believes distract from the larger issues that intersect with acceptable feminism. Linked with this, Roy is also strong on the attempts of corporate enterprises to present a respectable face to disguise their less PR-friendly activities, putting on film and literary festivals, offering selective charity and the like. Whether the value of these things, no matter the motive for their inception, should be disregarded is slightly doubtful, but Roy does well to highlight the distraction and prettifying tactics of those who seek to strip the people of their rights with one hand while offering a saccharine sweet palliative with the other.

As with any revolutionary privileged enough to be afforded a voice, Roy is open to the accusation of hypocrisy. Certainly, that her writing is rarely translated into any language other than English suggests that she writes for a privileged audience, but Roy is engaged in the issues that affect the lives of the many - able to tie together the high-level corruption that creates problems at the bottom of the economic food chain. Whether she is rightly called a dilettante or not, Roy shines a light on the state of India in a way that is much needed, managing to engage a Western audience starved of information about the daily events in the biggest democracy in the world. She is also clear-eyed about her own, and everyone’s, complicity in the corporate, consumer culture that grows ever stronger year on year: “Which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not, me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses, We all watch Tata Sky, we surf the Net with Tata Photon, we ride in Tata taxis, we stay at Tata hotels...” Big business owns the world – even the dissidents and artists that represent the counter-voice are really on the payroll in one way or another, Roy is wise to this fact.

By using India to demonstrate the ills of uncontrolled capitalism, Roy, by inference, extends the criticism further afield. By veiling, in some senses, her criticism of global capitalism, Roy makes the message more cerebral (perhaps not something one would necessarily associate with such an outspoken writer) and more palatable for Western readers. Even as she writes of India’s fascination with America and the exporting, a century after it took hold in the States, of the American dream, there is still a disconnect between the two brands of capitalism that will, perhaps, pacify some readers.

There is a relative authenticity to Roy’s writing – no matter her own background – as she writes from a position of knowledge, spending time with those who suffer at the hands of the corporate machine. This empathy and experience is matched by her smart prose (her essays are not only readable, but well referenced too, well enough for a non-academic text at any rate). There is a burning indignation in every line she writes, and to an outsider the sheer scale of the corruption that Roy sees can become overwhelming to the point where one simply ceases to fully take it on board: after the first wave of disgust at the bare facts, one becomes almost desensitised as Roy jumps from one topic to the next. Partly this is due to the scale of the problem that she describes, but her own style – vitriolic, suspicious – is as much a part of this. Her sentences overflow with passion and this is hugely engaging but it can also oversimplify and distract from her point at times. In an age when information whizzes around the world, quickly to be digested and then forgotten, there are times when focus is needed to ensure a point is driven home.

Roy is often accused of being sensationalist and writing for a middle-class audience, and for readers removed from many of things she writes about. The validity of this argument can be difficult to establish but whoever Roy writes for, the fact remains that she writes with a deep-seated scepticism that is needed to truly begin to understand the dark underbelly of the capitalist model, and all the effects it can have on those who suffer to profit the few. Most Western readers may not have the detailed knowledge to appreciate all that Roy writes about, or evaluate her position to the facts, but Capitalism is a powerful wake up call to any who have yet to fully comprehend the extent of the atrocities being perpetrated in one of the world’s emerging super powers.

Roy closes with an afterword that proposes a few points that would help form a fairer society, and a reassertion of her commitment not to tinker with the system but to overthrow it completely. As Roy’s writing receives so little publicity in the West, it seems fitting to share at close with a few of her words here, starting with her four rules for a fairer society:

“One: An end to cross-ownership in business. For example: weapons manufacturers cannot own TV stations, mining corporations cannot run newspapers, business houses cannot fund universities, drug companies cannot control public health funds.

“Two: Natural resources and essential infrastructure – water supply, electricity, health, and education – cannot be privatized.

“Three: Everybody must have the right to shelter, education, and health care.

“Four: The children of the rich cannot inherit their parents’ wealth.

Somewhere along the way, Capitalism reduced the idea of justice to mean just “human rights,” and the idea of dreaming of equality became blasphemous. We are not fighting to tinker with reforming a system that needs replaced.”

Without doubt some of this went over my head, particularly the details. I wouldn't like to comment on the particulars of Roy's essays, but it's interesting to learn more about modern India.

Useful Links
Reviews of Capitalism: A Ghost Story on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Capitalism: A Ghost Story on Amazon (US)

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Review: Revolution by Russell Brand
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Review: Revolution by Russell Brand

Revolution by Russell Brand book cover
Following on from Russell Brand’s now infamous Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman and the special issue of the New Statesman that he edited, Revolution (2014) is Brand’s book-length dissection of capitalist society – an answer to his critics who called for more than sound bites and sweeping statements. So here it is, Brand’s revolution laid out: from debt cancellation to Kundalini yoga, direct democracy to ecological sustainability, this is a sprawling stream of ideas spewed out by the most charismatic voice of leftist thought currently banging the drum. Is it time to peg back the cancerous spread of capitalism, to return power to the people, to take up some casual meditation and start measuring a country’s success not by its GDP but by a happiness index? For Essex’s would-be revolutionary the answer is certainly ‘yes’ – but does he convince?

Since he became commonly known in the mid-2000s, Russell Brand has always shown a penchant for revolution – back then it always felt like an affectation but Brand’s view of revolution has grown steadily more serious as the years have gone on and his own fame has developed. 2013 was Brand’s year – the point at which the wider public sat up and took note of his loquacious calls for revolution. Admittedly, most sneered at his posturing and condemned his call on people not to vote, even if, as Brand declared, the political system was broken and unrecognisable as a democracy, so little did it represent the vast majority of people. Since then, Brand has amped up his YouTube series ‘The Trews’ in which he dissects and comments upon the daily news, and his group of followers has grown and broadened to the point that he is now one of the most talked about celebrities cum politicos in the UK (admittedly, a small group). So what of Revolution – what does it add to Brand’s already stated position? The short answer is very little. Where one might have expected more depth to his line of argument, one is instead presented with a strung together collection of half-formed ideas, which are all too familiar to Brand followers.

Here, Brand acts as a mouthpiece for various leftist thinkers, openly hoping that his notoriety will bring his own fans to discover some of those writers and thinkers Brand himself admires. Various references to Chomsky and Piketty – probably the most referenced political writers – and a handful of lesser known names help give the book shape, but in truth the majority of the pages are taken up by Brand’s anecdotal riffs and some rather dubious spiritual digressions (the line by line Lord’s Prayer analysis is both baffling for its inclusion and painful in its execution). However, while many of the ideas have been heard before, not just from Brand but from many others, there is a fundamental truth in his assessment of our society: aggressive capitalism can only lead to power being transferred from the state to big business. Brand is spot on here, and has a very firm grip on the problems of modern society (although, admittedly, is somewhat lacking in solutions) and more than that, he has a very human feeling for how these larger concepts affect people on the ground. There are, however, two big areas in which one should be sceptical about his reading of society’s current plight. Firstly, and unsurprisingly, the ‘I’ is very much first and the Revolution second for Brand (you don’t even need to get beyond the cover to glean this fact), which somewhat undermines all his talk of egalitarianism, etc. Having Brand so tightly connected with his own idea of revolution creates problems immediately: it skews his thinking both by making his revolution performative (and thus popular lines are always chosen over purposeful ones), and by causing him to fall into the trap of seeing everything through his unique perspective while failing to recognise his essential difference from many of the people he attempts to speak for. Secondly, the book is overburdened by what is, essentially, spiritual claptrap. Brand has always been a fan of Eastern philosophy and spirituality, and here puts this across strongly, pushing the idea of a shared consciousness, and various other ideas he finds appealing. Some might agree with him, but most readers will have signed up for a political revolution not a spiritual one, and this line of argument – which Brand puts at the centre of his philosophy – rather undermines a lot of the good points he makes.

Brand understands that revolutions happen first in the mind and, despite the paradigm shift he extols being tied up with some sort of Eckhart Tolle spiritual revolution meshed with the twelve traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, he is on the money here. Winning hearts and minds is hardly a new idea, but Brand is as likely to actually do the winning of said hearts and minds as anyone else (better qualified) mentioned in the book. One can’t help but feel, however, that revolution is simply another in the long line of mirages towards which Brand has propelled himself, hopelessly longing for something to vanquish his personal ennui. Sadly, where drugs, sex, fame and fortune have failed, revolution is destined to follow. The real failing in Brand’s vision is the solution, or the end-game of his revolution, which is to move away from a system which affords a small minority power over the majority, and towards small, self-governing collectives, each of which would be responsible for its own members and with the right to do as it wishes, provided it doesn’t harm the rights of other collectives or do ecological damage to the planet. It’s a solution that, by definition, cannot be laid out too clearly at this stage, which is probably a good thing as any attempt to follow this idea through to its logical conclusion doesn’t seem to lead anywhere particularly promising.

One of the charges often laid on Brand is that of hypocrisy, something he is very well aware of. Orwell – whose writing Brand is at pains to demonstrate a decent knowledge of – felt the moral position of the author and their work were inextricably linked. With Brand, however, this has been taken too far, with many critics meaninglessly attacking him rather than his writing, which has led Brand, in Revolution, to acknowledge his hypocrisy frequently and gently try to extricate himself from the uncomfortable position of being a millionaire revolutionary. Undoubtedly, there is a disparity between Brand’s lifestyle and his writing (“be the change you wish to see in the world”, as he quotes from Gandhi) but a lot of that criticism can be set aside for the purposes of giving the book, and not the man, full attention. After all, Brand is an engaging writer. However, he is at his best when indulging the literary end of his talents rather than the political; he writes best under constraints and sadly Revolution has very few to tether him to the point and get the most from his writing. There is a lack of exactness throughout – not unexpected but, in a 300-page book, still disappointing. It’s easy to write from the outside: there is no pressure to commit to decisions, no need to do more than criticise those in power, no need to get bogged down in detail. Brand isn’t interested in details – an increasing problem amongst armchair revolutionaries sedated by social media – and if there’s one phrase that sums up his appeal and his ethos neatly, it’s when he writes that “revolution can’t be boring”. Sadly, real change often is.

Brand’s writing style so perfectly apes his speaking style – erratic, loquacious, almost free associating through ideas haphazardly – that it’s hard to see Revolution winning any new fans. For those that already sneer at the hammed up accent, spurious spirituality, and general vibe of Brand’s brand then Revolution will only reinforce that point of view. However, for those of a more sympathetic bent, this meandering narrative will tantalise and frustrate in equal measure; he writes with heartfelt verve and turns some brilliant phrases, but so too he mangles facts and meanders from points.

Ultimately, frustrating is a pretty good word to sum up Revolution. Brand has a good grasp of the problems facing the modern capitalist society, but he has no real solution and muddies the waters with his digressions about spirituality, which seemingly forms a big part of his personal motivation for revolution. As a book, Revolution is more or less what one would expect: a highly entertaining, sometimes prescient, look at the problems facing the Western world and its relationship with big business, which might inspire readers to take up the cause and really get involved in shaping the world. If Revolution can inspire serious engagement with important issues in the previously disaffected, then its own lack of serious engagement can be more easily ignored. After all, engaging minds already swamped by vacuous distractions is no mean feat. If there’s one thing that can be said of him, it’s that Brand makes revolution sexy. This is both his biggest problem and his biggest achievement.

I like Russell Brand a lot - even when he's wrong. I like his energy and humanity, not to mention his genuine outrage at the state of things. Revolution is not dissimilar to what I'd expected it would be, but I still wanted more.

Useful Links
Reviews of Revolution on Amazon (UK)
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List: Books Read 2014

Below is a list of all the books I read and reviewed in 2014, a total of 22 reads - a fair bit shorter than my normal count for a reading year. It has, however, been a year when my writing has overtaken my reading (debut novel anyone - have I mentioned it?) and, despite churning out over 100,000 words altogether this year, only a small percentage of those came in the form of book reviews.  Hopefully there's still something here to tickle your reading fancy, however - click on any of the items below to read my review.


  Letter to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

  The Time Machine by H. G. Wells

  A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

  The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

  The Fall by Albert Camus


  Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

  An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

  Burmese Days by George Orwell


  Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov

  The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007 by Martin Amis

  The Library: A World History by James W. Pryce


  Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography by Sir Alex Ferguson


  Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

  Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë


No books reviewed this month.


No books reviewed this month.


  The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

  Necropolis by Guy Portman

Reading Plan: January 2015

The Third Man by Graham Greene book cover
It’s been quite a 2014 for me, and 2015 is looking just as big: I hope to have a second novel published to follow my first (out last month - did I not say?), not to mention beefing up the blog a bit with a few more posts over the coming months. I hope your 2015 is looking as rosy! I hope also that you’ve had a wonderful Christmas (it’s not too late to get in the festive mood with my little quiz featuring some of the bestselling books of this year).

So, turkey to one side, New Year’s eve a hazy memory, what will I be reading this January? I’ve had a few books floating around for a while, some particularly interesting non-fiction titles that will probably keep for a weeks longer. I think I’m likely to start with The Third Man by Graham Greene – I can’t remember what got be wanting to read this recently (it’s been a fair while since I’ve seen the film) but it looks to be a good, light read to ease me into the year. I think Greene wrote it as preparation for writing the film script for The Third Man, so it will be interesting to compare it to the resulting feature.

Another book I’ve been meaning to review for ages is The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis – it keeps slipping my mind, which is irritating because I had a few things to say about the book, particularly as I seemed to be less enamoured by it than most of the media and other early readers. Hopefully I’ll be able to remember what caused me to have doubts some month’s down the line.

To round off, I’ll get my review of Russell Brand’s Revolution out this month. I’ve already read this but have been too distracted by festivities to get a review up.

That’s my 2015 off to a tidy start then. Happy New Year to you all – I hope it’s a good one for you!

Notable Posts from December
Review: The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell
Review: Necropolis by Guy Portman
Interview: Guy Portman

Interview: Guy Portman

Guy Portman author photo
Guy Portman is a British author. Born in London, he grew up in a world filled with Cold War propaganda. He would later go on to work in academic research and the sports industry, before turning his hand to authorship. His first novel, Charles Middleworth, was released in 2012.

His second novel, Necropolis – the darkly humorous story about a sociopathic council worker named Dyson – was published in April 2014.

You can read my review here: Necropolis by Guy Portman

Dyson is a sociopath very much in the mould of Patrick Bateman – as has already been noted in reviews – did you have any other literary reference points when writing the character?

I was definitely influenced by Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me though Dyson is a rather different sociopath to Lou.

What’s it like to write from the perspective of a sociopath?

It came naturally. Perhaps I shouldn’t be admitting that.

Dyson works in the Burials and Cemeteries department of the local council. You write about the ‘Death Business’ very convincingly – did you spend a lot of time researching the book, or do you have any experience comparable to Dyson’s?

I did do a lot of research into the ‘death business’. I also worked in the public sector albeit briefly, which gave me an appreciation of the culture.

For fans of transgressive fiction, there are a lot of subtle nods to other books in the genre – how do you think Necropolis sits within the overall genre? (Outside of it, looking in with a smirk, or as part of it?)

Dyson would appreciate the idea of being outside looking in with a smirk. For me personally I believe Necropolis is a bit of both. It is a worthy addition to the genre, but the sardonic element separates it from other books in the transgressive genre, at least the ones I have come across to date.

Necropolis seems to be a mix of transgressive fiction and straight action - were you conscious of writing for a diverse audience when putting the book together?

Yes I was. It was always my plan that Necropolis would be a work of transgressive fiction with a fast moving, action filled plot. To date it has certainly appealed to a diverse audience, including some readers who are not familiar with the transgressive genre.

This is your second book, both of which you have self-published. How have you found being an independent author?

I am finding it very rewarding. When my first book, Charles Middleworth, was published I didn’t know much about the whole publishing process, but I am now beginning to build up a readership and reap the rewards available to independent authors.

What advice would you give to independent authors just starting out?

Perseverance is the key in my opinion. You can’t expect to become an overnight sensation. It takes time and quite a few books before you are likely to get noticed.

What do you hope your books deliver for readers?

Enjoyment, satisfaction and an escape from reality.

Which authors, if any, do you compare yourself to, or aspire to emulate?

Not sure if I would compare myself to other authors. I am a big fan of Bret Easton-Ellis, well his earlier work anyway. If I was able to emulate in even a small way the writing abilities of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn then I would be very happy.

What aspects of writing do you find most challenging?

Starting a novel is the most challenging aspect for me. Once the novel is underway it gains momentum - Necropolis took just under a year to write.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a short novel/novella. It will be published early next summer.

What are your long term writing ambitions?

To publish a book, be it a novel, novella or book of short stories every year for the next ten years.

What, if anything, would you change about writing and publication of Necropolis?

Nothing. That is how I feel at the moment anyway. No doubt in 5 or 6 books time I will look back with the benefit of hindsight and think I should have done x or y.

Favourite word, and why?

Necropolis (cemetery/burial ground)

If you'd like to find out more about Guy and his writing, visit his personal website at Necropolis is available now, in both paperback and e-formats.

Useful Links
Necropolis on Amazon (UK)
Necropolis on Amazon (US)
Guy Portman's Author Website
Guy Portman on Twitter

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Review: Necropolis by Guy Portman
Necropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cemeteries for Newton Borough council in a London suburb. He is also a sociopath ... [Read More]

Review: Necropolis by Guy Portman

Necropolis by Guy Portman book cover
Necropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cemeteries for Newton Borough council in a London suburb. He is also a sociopath, as the blurb – aping American Psycho’s – tells us. Living a life detached, Dyson baulks at the painful lack of refinement he sees in all of his colleagues at the council, and – testament to the ubiquitous tastelessness evident in Dyson’s world – the gaudy tributes to loved ones that festoon the graves in the cemeteries he oversees. A string of casual liaisons and cheap lunches string together Dyson’s monotonous existence, that is, until he finds a means of escape in the form of a disgruntled European: Kiro Burgan, a council employee who spends his days tending the borough’s cemeteries. Convinced that Kiro is in fact a Balkans war criminal, Dyson sets about trying to prove his hunch and claim the two million euro reward that would come with it. Is Kiro just the escape route that Dyson needs? He certainly thinks so, and that makes him one dangerous sociopath.

From the novel’s opening pages its hero, Dyson Devereux, speaks in a calm, detached voice that is more than reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, only here the protagonist drops the names of cheap deodorants and high street brands rather than expensive colognes and exclusive tailors. This juxtaposition, of the supremely erudite, discriminating narrator, stuck in a world where his good taste goes to waste on inexpensive Chinese lunches and snakeskin ties (the latter more an aberration in taste than a compromise) is extremely funny at times – particularly when one first encounters Essex’s answer to Patrick Bateman. Dyson’s voice develops, however, and drifts between the sociopath amused by humanity’s foibles, and the autistic onlooker, bemused by society’s customs – think more Don Tillman than Hannibal Lector.

Perhaps fittingly for the Head of Burials and Cemeteries, Dyson appears obsessed by death and war, leering over embalming methods whenever he visits the local mortuary and spending his evenings watching documentaries about wars or reading about weaponry. As with Six Feet Under, the death game proves a suitable background from within which to explore the banality of existence. Indeed, for Dyson the living are no more distinguishable from each other than from the dead. His derisory view of his fellow human beings extends to the point where not only can he not be bothered to remember most of their names, but reduces those he finds most distasteful to the offensive pronoun ‘it’ – a slightly jarring way of demonstrating his contempt for others.

Deindividuation is important in Necropolis, Dyson’s inability to recall the names of his colleagues a nod not only to his own insular mentality, but to the stagnant world in which he lives, where sedation is as readily available in the form mind-numbing programming like the X Factor as it is from more obvious sources like heroin, both of which his part-time girlfriend seeks solace in to Dyson’s distaste. It might be surprising that such a sneering isolated individual should have a girlfriend of any kind but this is not this sociopath’s only relationship. Indeed, Dyson has mastered the fundamentals of human emotion, able very easily to forge connections with others through small pieces of body language trickery, exposing how simple, and how easily manipulated, human connection really is.

The plot in Necropolis sits somewhere between transgressive fantasy and straight action thriller, and this is a fine line to tread. As Dyson boasts of his conquests, the women who simper at one of his smiles, even the incredible plot that sees him locking horns with a Sierra Leon war criminal turned drug dealer and a Balkans war criminal, all reported in his unexcitable monotone, one can’t help but be pulled towards a transgressive reading, which has Dyson as a fantasist in the ilk of Tyler Durden’s narrator. However, as the text progresses, one is forced, unexpectedly, to read it more as a realist thriller. Read in this light, the novel begins to resemble something more akin to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books. This is fairly successful, although as the novel reaches its denouement, there is a slight lack of peril for Dyson, who appears to sail through most challenges calmly and with little chance of his world caving in on him. That said, the balancing act that Portman attempts to pull off here is a tricky one, and he cuts a definite path between the two genres, which makes Necropolis very much its own beast.

Dyson is well written for the most part and the satellite characters that surround him are disdainfully drawn, mere paper thin projections as seen through Dyson’s eyes. The writing is crisp, suiting Dyson’s logical, sneering voice. Occasionally too many adjectives are levered into a sentence, or a needlessly ornate word is misused, but these instances of overwriting are rare and concentrated near the book’s beginning. Another minor gripe is the phonetic dialogue, which is used with a handful of supplementary characters, and is at times a little frustrating (although some readers will have more tolerance for this than others).

As is often the case with sociopathic characters, Dyson is able to highlight – to comic effect – some of the flaws in the way ‘normal’ people live their lives. Here this is less through Dyson’s own behaviour and more through his observations about the characters around him. The funniest moments, however, are probably those were Dyson’s incongruence with his surroundings are most keenly felt. Necropolis is an intelligent novel, which to some extent gets caught between trying mesh a fast-paced plot with more thoughtful satire. Portman understands the genres in which he writes, however, and does well to bring the two together. While the plat may, at times, struggle to meet the demands of both genres, Portman’s characterisation of Dyson works well and this mitigates, to an extent, any cracks that show in what is an ambitious novel.

This is a really interesting book - a well conceived and pretty well executed idea. Portman is an upcoming novelist worth following.

Useful Links
Reviews of Necropolis on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Necropolis on Amazon (US)

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