Review: London Fields by Martin Amis

5 comments

London Fields by Martin Amis book cover
London Fields (1989) is a murder mystery, in reverse. Set in London in 1999, with an undefined crisis on the horizon, the story follows the sexually savvy Nicola Six, who has a premonition about her own death, as she tries to identify and entice her murderer. A willing murderee, Nicola develops relationships with the yobbish Keith Talent, a petty criminal and darts enthusiast, and the affluent but weak Guy Clinch, driving both men to sexual distraction in an attempt to propel one of them to murder. The story is relayed by a fourth character; dying American author Samson Young, who socialises with the characters, drawing inspiration for his final book from their ‘story’.

As with Amis’s previous work the lack of motive becomes central to the novel, creating, more than a whodunnit, a whydunnit. An uneasy air hangs over the characters determined path, with Nicola’s desire for death never fully explored. Indeed, as much as a personal death wish Nicola comes to represent the world itself, a willing murderee, longing for death but in need of assistance. Intricately conveyed, the novel’s themes have to be carefully picked from the tangled plot. What at first appears to be a meditation on the potential for nuclear holocaust and its devaluation of human life slowly becomes a metaphor for the act of writing, and the death of the author and of literature itself. The postmodern condition remains under constant consideration in a variety of ways, for example, the abdication of social responsibility due to the filtration of information and stupefying effect of television.

The dialogue and some of the set pieces are assuredly majestic; Amis creates the most acutely observed atmosphere and, through Keith in particular, crafts colloquial discourse of almost poetic brilliance. The depiction of deprived London and its inhabitants is magnificent, engulfing one in the texture and language of poverty, and contrasting it with its polar opposite – a stark reminder of London’s bizarre juxtaposition, where the lives of rich and poor are so intertwined. As in Money, Amis includes an authorial presence, in this case Samson Young (in addition to absent character Mark Asprey, often referred to as M.A.) who, far from enjoying Amis’s narrative authority, is unable to fully get to grips with the situation. Unlike the unruly lives of his characters, Amis retains tight control of the most complex of structures, comfortably disguising the skill needed to create such a multilayered work.

Like much of Amis’s writing London Fields courts controversy; it was excluded from the Booker Prize shortlist because some members of the judging panel were offended by perceived sexism within the novel. Certainly, the work is searingly written and does not compromise on its candid and experimental inclinations, although sometimes these are more justifiable than others. Aside from the possible offence some readers might find in the novel the main complaint is undoubtedly the plot itself. Despite being beautifully written, the characters are exaggerated versions of reality and the vehicle they inhabit is at times slow moving and a little tedious. But these are auxiliary issues when compared to the richness and depth of the text as a whole. 

Martin Amis is not always the easiest read, his novels are complex but therein lies the beauty. After finishing London Fields I came away with an urge to unpick the novel and truly understand it. If nothing else the ability to inspire my inquisitive nature makes this a good read for me.


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Reviews of London Fields on Amazon (UK)

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5 comments:

deucekindred said...

Succintly put - i liked this review!

Stefania said...

Your review is also very interesting. I also felt the urgency to understand more about the novel. What about that terrible toddler or the First Lady's ill-health, for example? Martin Amis is a sort of a puzzle, sometimes.

bibliofreak said...

It's terribly interesting isn't it Stefania? Marmaduke is quite a puzzle, he provides Guy and Keith's families with a nice symmetry, but there is surely more to his oedipal character than that? I've heard it suggested that he represents America - the unruly spawn of an ailing British nation but I think a little more thought is necessary on my part before I can get my head round him. Any interpretations welcome...

vpvonhoehen said...

This is a very good review of what in my opinion was the last of Amis' truly great works. I have always reacted unevenly to Martin Amis. Either I love his books or I hate them.

Money which pre-dates London Fields is when he really started to lose me (although he briefly got me back into the fold with London Fields). Unfortunately he followed Fields up with Time's Arrow which did nothing for me at all and then followed he followed that disappointment up with others.

bibliofreak said...

Yes, I get the feeling that a lot of people have a love/hate relationship with Martin Amis and his fiction. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed Money, in fact I would rank it as one of the best things I have ever read. But I'm still new to the Amisian world, and preparing myself to hit a brick wall when I get past his most acclaimed titles. Still, fingers crossed I'm either ignorant enough to enjoy them or smart enough to find something the masses have missed. I wouldn't put my money on the latter.