This novel is set in 2003 and follows the Smart family, on holiday in a rather tatty cottage in Norfolk. The (step)father, Michael, is a university professor and serial adulterer; the mother, Eve, is a (blocked) writer, imagining how the lives of people killed in the war would have ended had they lived; the son, Magnus, is in his late teens, and is suffering from crushing depression having been involved in cyber-bullying that led to the suicide of a girl at his school, and finally Astrid, is a bright but a little obsessive 12 year old.
The narrative is told alternately through their eyes, and as no concession is made to explaning context, the story emerges in fits and starts and not in chronological order. This structure is fresh and keeps the reader engaged – there is no way you could read this novel casually.
Into their broken world arrives a messiah-like character, Amber, who proceeds to kill or cure the family. Magnus is cured of his suicidal depression by heathly bouts of sex; Astrid is shown the world through a new, mainly paranoid, pair of eyes (the scene where Astrid and Amber take pictures of security cameras at Norwich station, freaking out the security staff, is genuinely funny); Michael and Eve are shown how unheathly and disfunctional their lives are less directly, but the result is still transformative.
I though this was a clever, well written, funny book. But I was hugely disappointed in the ending. I know it is depressingly traditional of me to look for ends to be tied up, but I was left with nothing resolved, and not knowing who Amber was, why she picks on the Smart’s for her shock therapy, apart from the fact they needed it.
After writing the above I checked out the reader reviews on Amazon. This is probably the first novel I have ever seen where the one star reviews out-scored the five star. Usually if people hate a book they don’t bother to review it – or even finish it. But this seems to have been widely loathed. I can see why some of the stylistic techniques might have been irritating, and I understand that some of the characters, especally the philandering don, were not engaging. But the contrast with some of the other contemporary fiction I have been reading this week was stark.