Review: The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer

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The Restoration of Otto Laird by Nigel Packer book cover
The Restoration of Otto Laird (2014) by Nigel Packer introduces the reader to Otto Laird: an ageing architect who has long retired from the hustle of the London scene to a quiet villa in Switzerland where he lives with his second wife Anika. However, when he hears that a high-rise building he designed in the 1960s – London’s Marlowe House, a brutalist masterpiece – is to be demolished and its residents evicted, he is spurred to action. Invited by a television company to stay for a weekend in the building as part of the campaign to save it, Otto – in poor health but with his old fire quickly rekindling – sets off for London for the first time in twenty-five years. It is a poignant journey and as he rediscovers the London landscape he once knew well, so too Otto retraces memories past: of how a Viennese Jew who spent much of his childhood hiding in a Belgian basement from the Nazis grew to be a young man of imposing stature who established himself as an architectural prodigy in London, met and married his first wife, Cynthia – a fellow architect of some genius – had a son, fought the socialist fight, became estranged from his son, lost faith in the socialist movement, retreated into a bourgeois life, and found himself happily married to a younger woman and hiding away in the Swiss Alps. It turns out that Otto has had quite a life but as his memories spread out, they paint the picture of a life full not only of great triumphs but pathos too. As Marlowe House’s chances of survival fade, what chance that Otto’s dwindling life can, at least, be saved?

The central metaphor – of a phallic building that represents hope, social justice, and more, about to be toppled, mirroring the decline of its architect, and his personal loss of virility – is a good starting point for a novel, as is the general premise of a spatial trip triggering a psycho-temporal journey in the narrator. Packer’s idea, too, of using Otto’s long life to encompass some of the big events and ideas of the twentieth century is reasonable, if a little reminiscent of Forrest Gump-style excess (I will hold my hands up here and admit that this particular style rarely works for me). However, from these promising seeds fails to grow any substantial exploration of memory and aging, of the cyclical nature of ideas and the spaces in which we live, or even of the gap between intellectual concept and practical reality in the case of Marlowe House (although there is some good if limited stuff on the attempts by the production company who have facilitated Otto’s return to package his cause for a television audience and also on the reality of living in a building like Marlowe House and being pulled about by the ‘powers that be’). Where this could have been a poignant reflection on frailty and family, however, it is instead a more tepid amble through a collection of, often, badly conceived vignettes.

The plot, while on the surface intriguing, is relayed in a rather heavy-handed way, with far too much told and not enough shown. Sometimes this weakness for direct telling is delivered through Otto’s own voice, but more often it is via the crude interjections of the selectively omniscient narrator. The memories that Otto relays are somewhat better in this respect, examining as they do different periods of his life and showing the construction of the man who narrates the story. However, Packer opens up so many plot strands – in an attempt, one suspects, to encompass as many themes and points in twentieth Century history as possible – that many feel superfluous or poorly constructed. To give an example of the former, Otto’s youth spent hiding from the Nazis in a cellar seems, really, to have nothing to do with anything else in the plot – it is diverting enough, but essentially unnecessary. To look to the latter, the relationship with Otto’s son, Daniel, is constructed via a few short memories and the whole trajectory of this plot strand is (i) rather weakly mapped out, and (ii) entirely predictable.

On top of this, the dialogue is, sadly, completely wooden and painfully clunky: the characters lack distinct voices and too often speech is used purely for conveying plot points without any real feeling for the rhythm of a conversation or the feeling beneath the words. Otto is a reasonably drawn character but not quite as engaging as he is sold to be; enough, however, that the reader grows close to him. This allows for moments of genuine melancholy in the novel, predominantly in the sections towards its end as Otto nurses his wife through the final days of her life, and these are well done. One can’t help but wonder how much stronger the book could have been if the plot had been more concentrated on Otto’s two marriages and the interweaving of his decline with that of Marlowe House. Nevertheless, what exists of this plot strand is good and worth reading.

It is worth remembering with these gripes that this is only Packer’s first novel and that these are all issues which can be ironed out. In interviews he has said the he drew on his personal interest in some of London’s brutalist buildings as well as the architecture of Erno Goldfinger to form the basis of the book and this shows in the passages that revolve around architecture. Although this isn’t enough to hold the story together, these passages do point to a good observational eye and offer hope for Packer’s future projects.

Here, the central idea of The Restoration of Otto Laird is really good and the blurb does a great job of selling the novel’s strong points, however, the execution of the ideas leaves a fair bit to be desired. Sadly, the blurb rather oversells the book and one might easily be left wondering where the “funny, moving, and heart-warming” novel is, and exactly how Otto could be seen as one of the “most endearing protagonists you will ever meet”. None of this, of course, is the novel’s fault, but it does create false expectations that the novel will always fail to deliver. Instead, what one actually gets is a gentle but melancholic meandering through an old man’s fading memories. This, clearly, is not quite dynamic or precise enough to work as a sales pitch, but perhaps that points to the more deeply rooted problem with Otto Laird and his rather muddled restoration.

I was disappointed by this: the pitch was really good, but the book just didn't really deliver. It was too messy, ponderous, and poorly executed. This sounds like I disliked more than I probably did, but being luke warm, as I was, is a pretty big indictment of a book.


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1 comment:

Matthew Selwyn said...

Whenever I read the full title in my head I have to stop myself reading it: The Restoration of Otto Laird by the Coward Robert Ford. Just a small insight into my muddle-brains.