Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK, 4th Estate for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely decided to review.
Just as a matter of curiosity and before I wrote this review, I checked if this novel had made it into the shortlist of the Desmond Elliott Prize for Fiction (a prize for what they call ‘future literary luminaries’) but it hasn’t. I have one of the three books that have made it in my pile of books to read so I’ll try and catch up and keep you posted. But now, the review.
I must confess that sometimes my list of books to read gets so long that when I try to catch-up I realise a long time has passed between my acquiring a copy of the book and the time I get to read it. Although in some cases it’s fairly evident, in others I’m no longer sure why I chose a particular book and can’t remember anything about it, so I plunge into it with few expectations. This novel is one of those. The cover is fairly non-descript and the title at best could be described as intriguing (but abstract. In fact, being Spanish, the Transition makes me think of the process of political change from Franco’s dictatorship into a democracy) but it doesn’t give much of the game away. The novel is a bit like that too. I suspect whatever I think of it right now, I’ll be mulling over it for a long while.
Karl, the protagonist, is a young man with a good English degree that he uses to try and make a living on-line, writing fake reviews and term papers for students. His wife, Genevieve, is a primary school teacher. They live well beyond their means (in what appears to be, as the book progresses, a general state of affair for young couples of their generation and that is uncomfortably close to reality) and, eventually, he ends up accused of fraud. (He is not wrongly accused, although the circumstances are easy to understand). Instead of prison, he is offered a way out; he can join a scheme that promises a step up the property ladder, help to start some sort of business, and a six month’s stay, rent-free with mentors who will help in the process of rehabilitation. Although his wife has committed no crime, she also becomes a part of the project. The details are somewhat fuzzy and we soon realise they don’t add up(Karl is told that the Transition is a new pilot programme but he later discovers it has been going on for well over ten years, who is behind it remains unclear, he starts hearing rumours about possible books that explain the philosophy of the programme, and the mentors they are staying with, Jana and Stu, seem to have more than a few cards up their sleeves) and what seems at first helpful and benign, soon morphs into something mysterious, seemingly conspiratorial and with a sinister ring, at least inside of Karl’s head. He pushes the boundaries, gets into more and more trouble and things take a turn for the worse. Has Karl been right in his suspicions all along?
The novel is narrated in the third person restricted to Karl’s point of view. As a writer (even if his content would not win the Pulitzer Prize), he is articulate and we get information about the variety of online writing projects he engages in. He might write an essay about fairy tales one day, several five-star reviews about a chair and then another essay about ellipses in Henry James. (He moves from the sublime to the ridiculous, the same as the novel does, but eventually, it isn’t clear if there is any substantial difference between the two). His sense of morals seems restricted to loving his wife and trying to ensure she is well, as she has mental health problems and he protects her and looks after her, even when she does not want him to. Karl is clearly besotted with his wife, despite the difficulties in their relationship, and his was love at first sight. Although we only have his point of view as a guide, judging by other characters’ reaction to her, Genevieve is an attractive and engaging woman whom everybody feels drawn to and Karl is convinced he is extremely lucky (and perhaps unworthy) to be with her. Other than that relationship, Karl does not seem to have any meaningful ones. He mentions his father but not with particular affection and his relationship with his friend, the accountant who suggested he joins the scheme, seems based more on past shared experiences than on a real bond (as becomes evident later in the novel). There are instances of Karl not being truthful (he keeps information hidden from Genevieve, some we are aware of but some we aren’t) and he does not fit in most readers’ idea of a hero. He has devious morals, he sabotages himself, he is self-interested, and yes, he is flawed, but not ‘deeply’ flawed. Personally, I could not find much to like or truly dislike in him. He has moments of insight and shares some interesting reflections about life, but like with the novel, there is some unfinished quality about him. He will only go so far and no farther and he can act rashly one minute and be truly passive or passive-aggressive the next.
The action seems to take place in a future not far from our present. There is no world building and the social situation seems pretty similar to that of the UK today. Computer technology has not advanced in any noticeable way and the problem with affordable housing seems to be only marginally worse than the present one, although self-driven cars abound. There are descriptions of paintings, some buildings, clothes, interior design, and some characters but dependent on what might catch Karl’s attention. I have seen the book described as a dystopia, but it is not clear to me that the whole world order is affected by the Transition (perhaps they have some designs towards world domination, but it isn’t that clear), and it does not fit neatly into the category of science-fiction either. Karl acts as an amateur detective at times, and the novel has touches of the conspiracy theory behind it, but they don’t seem fully formed. I have also read some reviews saying it is humorous, and there are funny moments, especially if one considers the contrast between the worst of our suspicions and what actually happens, but it is not a comedy in the traditional sense; even calling it a dark comedy would be a bit of a stretch. As a psychiatrist, I was particularly interested in the mental health angle and although it is not fully developed, it highlights some of the ongoing issues with such diagnoses, and it rings more true to me that some other angles of the story.
The author is better known as a poet, and the book is well-written although I wouldn’t say the language is particularly poetic or compelling. Like a post-modern puzzle, the book includes bits of the mentor’s book, diary extracts, documents, messages… Ultimately, it does not leave everything to the reader’s imagination and struggles to impose a meaning that does not sit comfortably with it.
I have read some of the reviews and I agree that the book’s beginning is very promising but it does not deliver fully. In my opinion, it might be a matter of genre and also tone of voice (the light and comedic touches didn’t always seem congruous with the background atmosphere, although that could be read as a reflection of the narrator’s state of mind). The characters are not that easy to engage with (I found Karl understandable but not always emotionally relatable) either and the action and the story are not fully realised. The novel is ambitious and tries to do many things, some which seem to be in contradiction to each other, and that creates a tension that makes it crack at the seams.
On the other hand, the ideas behind the novel are interesting, the book is easy to read and the reflections and social comments are spot on, even if they are not resolved. I can’t see this book causing extreme reactions on its readers, but it would be a source of lively discussion in a book club. And I’m intrigued to see what the author will write about next.