Book Review: Barbarians

Thursday 19 March 2015 by

Barbarians, John Murray, Tim Glencross, BookBarbarians by Tim Glencross

Published by John Murray

Publishes 22nd May 2015

It is 2008, late capitalism is in crisis, and the great and the good are gathered at an Islington house party. Hosting proceedings are waspish Sherard Howe, scion of a publishing dynasty and owner of a left-wing magazine, and his wife, Daphne Depree, whose feminist work The Third Sex is seen – to her increasing discomfort – as an intellectual cornerstone of the Blair era. The guests include cabinet ministers, celebrated artists and peers of the realm; but somehow it’s doubtful that an number of grandees would overshadow Afua, the Howes’ beautiful and supremely ambitious adopted daughter, already a rising star of the Labour Party.

Into this world arrives twenty-four-year-old Elizabeth ‘Buzzy’ Price, an aspiring poet only too aware of her suburban background. Moral support is at hand from shy but devoted Henry, the Howes’ biological son- though perhaps Buzzy is most grateful for her friend’s connection to her own unrequited love, Afua’s boyfriend, the worldly Marcel.

As the years pass and coalition government takes office, Buzzy’s fortunes rise and the elder Howes’ lives threaten to unravel. But do the civilising possibilities of art involve enlarging Buzzy’s romantic ambitions, or revealing their moral complacency? And could meek and gentle Henry, having angered his family by going to work for the political enemy, turn out to be steelier than anyone thought – as steely, even, as his formidable adopted sister?

~*~

We’re on to our third book for the Curtis Brown Book Group, and this month’s choice is yet another that I would never have thought to pick up: Barbarians. With a tag line that reads “Love. Politics. Art. Money.” it would never have occurred to me to try it as I’m not the kind of person to read arty or political books.

But Glencross’ sharp look at the political (and familial) manoeuvrings makes for compelling reading.

In fact, I did find this one a harder read than the others; I wasn’t a fan of any of the characters (nor should you be), and some of the more political pieces went completely over my head. But there is something addictive about reading about characters that are truly unsympathetic. Not one of them seems to be the hero of the piece, and all of them have aspects that make them fairly unpleasant people. But that’s what works.

Told from varying points of view, it’s interesting to see the workings of the characters as they progress and interact, growing in to either more unpleasant caricatures of themselves (Sherard) or working up the courage to defend themselves (Henry). And although some of the political stuff did confuse me, there was a certain amount of entertainment to be gleaned from recognisable names and seeing them put to the author’s whim.

What struck me most about the book was the acid wit of Glencross. He is neither cruel nor gentle, but there is a fierceness in his writing that is impossible to ignore. There’s a certain acerbic irony to his narration of this band of unhappy people, enough pop culture references to make it feel like modern Britain is under a very unforgiving microscope. Are we really that shallow and materialistic? Is politics really that slimy? And would someone really buy a bottle of beer for an extortionate amount of money just Damien Hirst designed the label?

I wonder how much of this is the author’s political statement – observing the class system, the snobbishness and weakness of those in privileged positions, and the dying breaths of a London desperately ignoring the reality of recession. The London is a recognisable one; a strange blend of cultural pride and fear of rejection, coupled with the unique exclusivity of a city that needs its working and middle classes yet refuses to let them join in. Does that sound overtly political? It stems from the ambitions of Afua, who moves her way up the ranks of the Labour Party with alarming speed, and the insecurities of Buzzy, who feels she is always the fraud at the party (drinking Damien Hirst beer). These opposites seem to reflect the changing cultural and political climate around them, until it’s hard to discern whether they are influencing circumstances or being influenced.

The addition of real-world references makes it feel authentic; even the allusions to events that are unnecessary to the plot are given enough screen time to make them feel essential. They anchor you in the world of Marcel and Buzzy and the Howes. They point you in the direction of where your sympathies need to lie, and what kind of world they are in. It’s like being given helpful directions that you can’t really ignore. And Tony Blair’s cameo made me smile.

Barbarians is quite unlike any other book I have read. It will take me a while to fully digest it, I think, because it’s one of those books that just keeps asking questions.

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