Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The Book Lover's Tale by Ivo Stourton: Review

Stourton: nimble
Ivo Stourton's second novel, The Book Lover's Tale, is a deliciously dark literary thriller that concerns the seamy habits of an interior decorator, Matt de Voy. de Voy once had ambitions to be a writer; after his first novel was published, he found himself becoming increasingly dependent on his aristocratic girlfriend; eventually abandoning all pretence of 'writing', he ended as second in command to his now-wife's interior decorating business, where his job is to be the arbiter of elegance (sort of like Petronius, except madder) and sneer at the wide-boys who come to him for assistance whilst fornicating fulsomely with their wives. It sounds like the best job in the world. de Voy is a splendidly conceived character, possessed of a self-belief that precludes any sort of reflection that isn't directly focussed upon himself. He is vain, snobbish; he believes that he inhabits some kind of Les Liaisons Dangereuses world where he can seduce people by giving them books (in particular Anais Nin); he is mean to his long-suffering wife and to his lovers; he also believes that he can bring back the simplicity of Greek tragedy to the long-corrupt, amoral English landscape, where the old guard has fled to the back streets of Chelsea, its values and standards imitated by barrow boys and foreigners (as de Voy sees it). In this world soldiers are sneered at by bankers; sex is a weapon, and everybody has ulterior motives. It's bleak, brittle, and fascinating.

de Voy falls in love - or rather, obsession - with one of his client's wives, and resolves to keep her for himself. This can only be done, he decides, by murder. The novel hurtles along keenly to its resolution, giving us a portrait of a man of extremes as he battles his way through the inconsequential nothings of London society, threatening to make a final statement that will have real, destructive power - much more power than he could ever achieve through the subtle arrangement of books in a banker's palace.

Stourton has a gift for the vivid and the violent: there are many bold, striking scenes, as when a guest falls from a balcony at a party, or when one of the characters suffers a terrible accident. The reader marvels at de Voy's audacity and self-deceiving arrogance, and yet is pushed along by a plot that is hooked and shining - with some elegant literary criticism along the way. Stourton's smoothly shocking novel is a sharp comment on our heavily consumerist lives: de Voy, after all, is only a product of the system - just one that's taken things a little too far.

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