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The Busker promises three cities, two years, one chance. Yes, the cities bit is correct, and I’ll take Liam Murray Bell’s word for it that it takes place over two years – although it is difficult to gauge the passage of time – but “one chance” is a bit misleading. We open the book to find Robert Dillon, homeless on the streets of Brighton, having pawned his guitar to buy a bit of food and some drugs to help him sleep. Since Robert – or Rab – is a busker, this seems to reflect some pretty short term thinking. Rab seems to be a stereotypical Glaswegian junkie, having incoherent arguments with his incoherent homeless buddy Sage. Certainly, Rab is at rock bottom. So it challenges pre-conceptions to discover that Rab is an articulate man from a middle class part of Glasgow who recently signed a recording contract and had an album released. The novel layers back in time, first to London where Rab is living the high life, raiding the mini-bar in his swanky hotel room, being ferried about the place by record company limousines, and looking forward to a life of fame and wealth. And then it is layered further back to Hyndland, Glasgow, where Rab’s friends are looking at universities as Rab is making preparations to head down to London for the big time. He is full of hopes and expectations; perhaps his girlfriend Maddie might come to join him; they could buy a house and once the royalties start to pour in, Maddie’s English uni tuition fees wouldn’t be a drop in the bucket… Obviously, we know that Rab’s music career is not going to end well; part of the intrigue in the novel is seeing how such a low ebb can be reached from such promising beginnings. The journey gives a searing portrayal of the music industry which seems so cut-throat and unsentimental that it’s a wonder anyone would ever consider joining it. Everyone seems to be in hock to someone else – those who seems to be screwing over the artists are being screwed over themselves. There is also a good deal of cynicism about celebrity endorsement of grass-roots movements. Rab is encouraged to involve himself with the Occupy movement, pretending to be sincere, pretending to live in a tent, pretending to be in touch with the streets. The irony, of course, is that this is exactly the future that is waiting for Rab. One of the strengths of the book is the development of Rab as a character. He may not have been much chop as a rock star, he may take some poor decisions and sometimes seems callous, but he does have an innate optimism that is hard to dislike. He doesn’t want charity; he doesn’t want to admit defeat; and he seems to still have hope that he’ll be able to pull himself up. In each of the three sections, he is counterpointed by more pessimistic characters – Sage in Brighton, Price the record mogul in London, and Maddie, the girlfriend in Glasgow. Rab is never deterred by the fact that the voices of pessimism often seem to be right; and the reader cheers for him. Does he get there in the end? Perhaps. ****0
Right-o. Booker longlist or no, this one bored me. Pretty much every minute was excruciating tedium. On the plus side, Unexploded apparently conveys a very strong sense of time and place. It's true that Brighton in the early years of the war makes a pleasant change from inner city London or the middle of the English countryside. There is a feeling of trying to cling onto normal life; the restrictions and privations assumed initially to be temporary. We see the last of private petrol; the last onions; the last days on the beach. Piece by piece, normal life is dismantled and the luxuries of yesterday are turned into the necessities of tomorrow. The racecourse becomes an internment camp; metal is scrapped for bombs; the grammar school becomes a convalescence hospital. And in the midst of the chaos and falling bombs, Geoffrey and Evelyn have marital problems. Every now and then, things threaten to get interesting. There are mentions of Mosley and Lord Haw-Haw. Geoffrey and Evelyn's son Philip looks set to get involved in dangerous and exciting situations. There are a couple of suicide pills floating around. There's a mysterious German who turned up with tales of torture in a German KZ camp and a stack of forged banknotes. But ultimately they all fizzle out. Damp squibs, every one. I am told - but don't know from first hand experience - that the narrative style owes much to Virginia Woolf. Indeed La Woolf gets several mentions and a cameo role. Alas, the significance of this passed me by completely. Rather than elevating the ordinary into a great poetic vision, this novel seems to such the monumental down into the abyss of ordinariness. We don't care what happens to the lead characters. The only half-captivating character is Leah, a character very much of secondary importance. It's a pity. The writing is competent and flows well. The trouble is that, for this reader at least, Alison Macleod doesn't have anything very interesting to say. **000