Adrian J Walker is back, following up on his wonderful dystopian novel THE LAST DOG ON EARTH with THE OTHER LIVES. This one is harder to place in a genre but no less entertaining and thought provoking. I’d summarise it as a metaphysical meditation on the current woes of British society wrapped up in a romp of an urban fantasy/magical realist narrative.
The lead protagonist is Elliott Childs, who is a combination of Jeremy Kyle and Piers Morgan. An evening talk-show host whose program is like the Colosseum, feeding Christians to the lions to sate the baying mob, who confuse the entertainment of their base fears with truth. Elliott is a nasty piece of work, with a gift to ‘dive’ into people and see into their deepest secrets. He is a man with everything, but that is soon put at risk when something triggers a chain reaction affecting his power. He loses control of it and the grip on his life. His ability to ‘dive’ is only the symptom of a greater power, that will see a man who has tried to avoid personal ties eventually connect with people in a more significant, deeper way, even if he doesn’t want to. He is connected to a group or a ‘knot’ of people with whom he has shared many other lives. But what this means for Elliott and the world he is helping to see the ‘truth’ through his programme will be the subject of the novel.
Now on the face of it, this may not sound like the most exciting of stories, at least the way I have presented the premise above. However, you’d be wrong. This novel is dealing with big meaty issues, not least of which is the character change of the protagonist as a means to explore the current divisive state of British society. It does that through a metaphysical thought experiment of, ‘what if we lived other lives and could remember them?‘
This could quite easily become 300 plus pages of hipster tosh, where the leftist, barely read university graduate put themselves on a higher moral pedestal than the loathsome rightists, who are quite clearly either evil capitalist straw men, replete with twirling moustaches and mirthful, hand rubbing laughs, and the great unwashed. Note these aren’t the ‘good’ deserving poor, the noble poor, but the other kind, the racists, little Englanders. However, it doesn’t become that one-dimensional polemic. It is a very good story, and does what all good stories do: allowing the reader to step into other people’s shoes and look at issues from other dimensions / standpoints. Part of what makes this so well done is the use of the main protagonist, Elliot, who is quite the dark nihilist, who hates everyone equally and thinks the world is only made up of layers of deepening hypocrisy. That there are reasons for his own life and opinions, and that there might be for others is all just a load of cuddly, tree hugging crap, about as sincere as a hipster tweeting about his fare trade coffee on an iPhone made with conflict minerals and the suicidal labour of the Chinese underclass. (See it’s easy to hate everyone, but especially hipsters, with all that Moroccan hummus and pomegranate seeds stuck in their ZZ Top beards).
For an admittedly pinko-tree-hugger such as myself, there is something deliciously perverse about viewing the world through Elliot Child’s point of view, partly because there is a small degree of truth to the hyperbole he comes out with. And as much as we might like to deny it, the baying crowd is part of everyone, and if you think it’s not, you are already a mark for the hustle – like all those people on Grand Designs making a grotesque moral aesthetic out of their ostentatious displays of wealth; or the no-nonsense racist cab driver, who blames immigrants for everything, “coming over here and taking our jobs, changing our culture“, and not the deregulation of money markets in the 1970’s and South East Asian industrial robots. There are no easy answers, and standing opposite each other across the ideological divide shouting insults is, for certain, the method least likely to make anything better.
Adrian J Walker is a great character writer, and this book is full of interesting folk from different walks of life all put in the blender together. Not only that but I would class Adrian’s writing akin to the great master of speculative fiction, Stephen King. It has the same easy flow, a blue collar straightforwardness that is all about moving the story along by building character and setting. There is a good deal of humour in his work too, the kind that comes from observation, and the writer’s eye for cutting to the heart of a matter by looking at it from different perspectives. But with humour there is also tragedy, both small and large to be had here.
The prologue reminded me a lot of the opening chapter of Dead Zone, not in any sense of plagiarism, but in its manner of introducing the physics, or rather metaphysics, of the world we are about to enter. It is also what the writing coach James Scott Bell calls the ‘care package‘ scene, helping us to invest and care about our lead character. Also, the references to 1980’s English comprehensive school created a wonderful feeling of nostalgia for me, while simultaneously reliving the awkward horror that it was, where every other ‘friend‘ was a cappo regulating the hierarchy of popularity and, let’s face it, sexual opportunity, like a troop of primates in school blazers and ties.
Towards the end of the book, I was hit with parallels between The Other Lives and a famous story by Dickens. I won’t say which one because I don’t want to spoil the ending for you. This realisation generated an expectation in me, which when I turned the page was completely usurped by the author. The twist hit me like a stampede of hipsters at a farmers’ market looking for a safe space when it suddenly dawns on them it’s not a wheat or dairy free zone. It was an ending with a visceral twist, one that still has me thinking about it. I think it was the right ending. It vibrates with the same authenticity of the lead character, that is perhaps more in tune with the timber of our discordant times.
In sum, Adrian J Walker has delivered another great read. A metaphysical meditation on the divisions of modern Britain, wrapped up in a fast paced romp of a narrative, including obnoxious chat show hosts, shady political figures, hitmen, tree-huggers, tramps and hippies (sorry no hipsters, they were at a Neil Gaiman book signing pretending they’d always liked him). A truly delicious lead character, happy to twist the knife of everyone’s hypocrisies, and yet vulnerable to the dangers of being exposed to the root of his own folly, and what facing that might mean for you, me, everybody, because everybody might need somebody (as the Blues Brothers told us).
No hipsters were harmed in the writing of this review!
The Other Lives is available here.
For more information about Adrian J Walker’s short story in Shallow Creek Crowdfunding click here.
Reviewed by Daniel Soule
Adrian J Walker
Adrian J Walker was born in the bush suburbs of Sydney, Australia in the mid ’70s. After his father found a camper van in a ditch, he renovated it and moved his family back to the UK, where Adrian was raised.
Ever since he can remember, Adrian has been interested in three things: words, music and technology, and when he graduated from the University of Leeds, he found a career in software. His novel The End of the World Running Club, a post-apocalyptic running fable about hope, love and endurance, was a Simon Mayo Radio 2 book club choice.
He lives in London with his wife and two children. To find out more visit: http://www.adrianjwalker.com
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