BOOK REVIEW: The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

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Adulterant – Noun – Plural Noun: adulterants – a substance used to adulterate another. Adulterate – render (something) poorer in quality by adding another substance. From the Latin adulterant (corrupting).

What Joe Dunthorne has achieve with ‘The Adulterants’ is something quite special, something that many writers could learn a thing or two from; that, my friends is how to tell a good story. His prose is relaxed but complex, easy to the eye but hard on the heart. The true beauty of this book is that it explores what it’s like to be fallible, isn’t that something we all can relate to; to be at a crossroads in your life and coming to terms that life isn’t all you thought it would be.

Dunthorne, like the great Baroque painter’s Caravaggio and Rembrandt’s attention to detail is second to none; Dunthorn weaves his pen in great masterstrokes that are subtle but when noticed transform the ordinary into what I could only describe as extraordinary. Dunthorne is what I would call a true wordsmith. His sentence structure is striking, often leaving me exclaiming to myself at how amazing his last line was or how great his grasp of the language is.

‘June’s violin was not even a Stradivarius and still it was insured for one and a half million dollars. My father had whispered the figure to us when he showed us to our room. ‘Her violin is worth more than this house,’ he’d said, ‘and she carries it around in a soft case – terrifying!’ People who have loads of money love to talk about people who have even more, in order to try on the costume of poverty.’

The Adulterants’ follows the life of Ray, who as the back-cover states ‘is not a bad guy’. The problem with Ray is that trouble and strife and all things not so nice seem to gravitate towards him or is it he that gravitates to them? Ray is at the midway point of his life, he’s in crisis mode, his wife is pregnant, he has a job he hates but it pays the bills, he has feelings of doubt, feelings of regret and he’s developed a knack of everything that he tries to do seems to take him further down the rabbit hole that is the gutter of his life.

‘That I had failed as a father and a husband seemed certain until I saw myself in the wider context of other men on the postnatal ward. Everywhere were new dads, lost and incapable. While the convalescent mothers and babies remained hidden behind the partitioned blue curtains – their pains and joys purely auditory – I joined the useless daddies adrift in the bays, holding bundles of sodden bed sheets, ferrying jugs of tap water, obstructing gangways, constantly peckish, offering redundant medical opinions gleaned from half-read newspaper articles and all wearing shorts and flip-flops and stretched T-shirts because we’d been told the ward would be overheated so that we all looked weirdly surf-ready, but with the wide empty eyes of the drowned.’

Dunthore exposes us to his flawed character Ray in wonderful detail and it’s alluring to see his life unravel before our eyes, punctuated with many a stand out scene that have cinematic appeal held within this charming little book. Ray unfortunately is the substance Dunthorne hints at with the title and wields Ray as his corrupting force in his tale with great accomplishment; Ray’s life and circumstances are the adulterant, that by adding him to the mix corrupts the quality of lives he touches with his presence (rendering something poorer in quality by adding another substance – that substance being Ray).

Like his fabulous book ‘Submarine’ he has another hit on his hands with ‘The Adulterants’ it’s funny, compelling and an example of what a great raconteur Joe Dunthorne has become. I’d highly recommend this book to those out there who love a damaged protagonist (think Bukowski and Fante) and a writer who knows how to tell a good story!


Joe Dunthorne


Joe Dunthorne was born and brought up in Swansea. He is the author of Submarine, which has been translated into fifteen languages and made into an acclaimed film directed by Richard Ayoade, and Wild Abandon, which won the 2012 Encore Award. A collection of his poetry is published as Faber New Poets 5. Joe Dunthorne lives in London and The Adulterants is his third novel.

The Adulterants is available to purchase from Hamish Hamilton here.


Review by Ross Jeffery





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