Plastic by Christopher Fowler
One of the joys of this role as a now almost full-time reviewer is the pure serendipity of the exercise. Although there’s an element of choice about which books I ask to review, there are times when I simply pick at random and, to my surprise, occasionally turn up a gem. At the other extreme, many of the books I pick on the basis of a known author turn out fairly dire. Everyone can have a bad day at the office. With Plastic by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2013) I have the ultimate satisfaction of finding a known author at the top of his game. Yet, somewhat extraordinarily as the preface recounts, this book has been doing the rounds of publishers for some considerable time. For reasons I cannot begin to guess at, all the supposedly knowledgeable big guns of the commissioning world turned this down. Maybe the marketing gurus failed to see this as a best-seller because they could not stick a convenient genre label on the putative front cover. So kudos to Solaris for picking it up. I find myself momentarily stilled in admiration for an author executing a very difficult task flawlessly.
At this point, I need to veer off and mention Tom Sharpe who died earlier this year. For me, the early books are outstanding examples of a raw farce, often turning satirical, but always with the capacity to make the reader laugh. However, starting with The Throwback, I found he grew too dark for my taste. It stopped being funny as his anger and cruelty became rather painful for the reader (and the protagonists). In Plastic, Christopher Fowler confronted the same problem, but solved it by actually liking his heroine. She may start off stunted but, even in her most desperate hours, you feel Fowler retains his affection for her. He wants her to survive. This imbues the first-person narrative with optimism and makes the entire venture a rather joyful if somewhat Gothic experience for her. Indeed, in the midst of all the chaos, there are a couple of laugh-out loud moments when the absolute absurdity of her situation is suddenly exposed. She’s the victim of circumstances outside her control. All the initial events are random. But if ever you wanted to assume a conspiracy to drive her over the edge, this is what it would look like. So in terms of genre, this is a dark farce which occasionally toys with thriller conventions. In this, I’m resisting seeing this in any way as being a horror novel. In a way, it’s an absurdist, extreme aversion therapy version of The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by the pseudonymous Sophia Kinsella with a mystery element for our heroine to puzzle out.
Now, carefully avoiding spoilers, it’s necessary to briefly introduce the key elements of the plot. We meet June Cryer. She’s hidden her intelligence under a bushel, well several bushels, hampers, buckets and boxes flecked with gold foil, all bought on credit using cards supplied by her husband. This is a tragedy. She could have been an interesting person, but an early pregnancy and a father willing to make an honest woman of her, put an end to that when she failed to carry to term. Now ten years into the marriage, her body may be present but her mind has long been numbed into submission. When she discovers her husband has been spending time with the woman next door, her only friend gets her a gig flat-sitting for a weekend. This should be easy money but that would be no “fun”. In fact things go wrong from the moment she walks through the door of this exclusive block of homes for the wealthy. Or, if you prefer, she suddenly realises the practical problems of the situation which she has volunteered to deal with. It’s perhaps a symptom of our times that people are allowed to occupy a new building before the fitting-out work is finished. These are heady consumerist days in the London housing market for the elite. Indeed, so anxious are people to be able to boast of their new address, they blithely accept the need to turn off the electricity for a weekend while repairs are made. Except the flat in which she’s being paid to huddle is stuffed with valuable artwork. So, with all electronic security systems depowered, she’s gone from suburban housewife to security operative without the see-in-the-dark goggles and 9 mm to reinforce her defensive capability.
Frankly, this is a wonderful book. . . but I’m obliged to raise a minor caveat. There’s a wealth of wit and humour to be excavated from the elegant prose and the unexpected nature of some of the events. Except it’s very British humour which may not travel so well outside the sceptered isle. It’s also possible some readers may be dubious that a man can produce a convincing first-person narrative featuring a woman. On this you should have no fear. In these more gender-blind days, I seriously doubt you would know the sex of the author unless you read the name on the cover. Well, obviously you did read the name but you know what I mean. Overall, Plastic is impressive no matter what genre label might be attached to it.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.