Rating: 1 star
I picked this up because the blurb on the back cover made it seem like it would be a charming, whimsical flight of fancy with added bite, in the mode of Louis de Bernières or Marina Lewycka.
I think it wants to be that kind of book, but it doesn’t quite get there. It wants to be a satire on Capitalism, US Imperialism through trade, and life under a dictatorship made to seem legitimate by regular elections. It’s set in a fictional European country, but it could have been a fictional African country. The satire would perhaps have had more bite that way.
The chapters are short, so it was easy to read on my commute. The writing style was verbose and in places quite dull. It needed more editing to tighten it up. If detailed explanations of why a situation is the way it is get in the way of the flow of the story, then they shouldn’t be in the book. There’s a chapter where the American Consultant addresses a government committee and leaves large pauses between his points. These pauses enable the minds of his listeners to wander, and so the logic of his argument is lost. The detailed back story that punctuates the tale we’re supposed to be immersed in did the same for me.
Glaister comes across as incredibly pleased with herself. The moments she presumably thought were clever satire, the protest by an aging student unable to graduate and find work, as an example, were over-egged. I found a lot of her commentary on politics and social engineering wearyingly smug. The big misunderstanding that introduces the character who revolutionises society and sets the fictional country on the right path felt clichéd.
An example of why this book felt smug came when the President, Sergio, asked his supposed royal visitor what her title was:
Sergio worked hard to remain professional, while his instinct was to cradle her head in his lap and stroke her hair. ‘As for the other protocol, it’s best to get that sorted, for our own purposes, you understand. What title do you like to go by?’
‘Miss is fine. I’ve toyed with the idea of being a Ms but Daddy always says it’s reserved for lesbians and spinsters. I know, I know, he’s absolutely rooted in the dark ages, but whenever I try to use it I see him standing in front of me, shaking his head in disappointment. But you don’t need to call me by any title. Elizabeth is my name but Lizzie is fine.’
Not just smug. Tedious and borderline offensive in that special way the privileged can be in their ignorance of real life.
At times it made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo in the way government machinations and jockeying for position were gently lampooned. The farcical nature of cartoon despotism, the idiocy of those in power contrasting with the quiet sanity of the ordinary. Except ‘Allo ‘Allo was funnier because the writing was interpreted by comic actors who understood timing. There was a spark missing in this book’s attempts at comedy.
At other times it was more like a romance than a satire. When Lizzie decides to set right an old wrong and insists on seeing the President without an appointment, she speaks to him as though she is a wronged lover, sulky and petulant. Why? She’s met him twice, has been in the country four days, and is only a student on the equivalent of a foreign exchange trip. The way almost all the men are lecherous in her presence, too, and she responds like some bargain basement Princess Diana. Even down to the sunlight shining through her clothing to reveal her shapely legs.
There was a strange theory about the role of women in running a country that suggested women stayed at home to organise domestic life in a manner that allowed the men of the country, who solely occupied jobs and positions of power, to believe they were running the country, when actually it was women who ran the country by maintaining the balance of male egos. In the book, it extended to women pretending they didn’t speak English well while in the company of men, but becoming fluent when talking to Lizzie alone. That raised my hackles slightly. It wasn’t clear whether Glaister believes such codswallop or whether this was another example of misfiring satire. It left me with the taste of current Tory policy in my mouth. Little women standing behind big men, playing dumb while secretly running things, and the world being a nicer place because of it? Hmm. The revelation that the women of the country were guerilla farmers did little to assuage my irritation.
It ends very preachily, excoriating Britain for losing sight of the great nation it used to be, built on community, where people take responsibility for themselves and each other and stop expecting the state to provide for them. The Big Society Lives On!
It was a novel that felt like it had been born of a supper party where the author said she’d had an idea and all her friends said she should write a book. It feels like I’ve read a few of those lately. I wish I could have taken it at face value, as a flippant trifle, but it irked me too many times. It was a clumsy, clichéd mess of a book, a thinly veiled piece of propaganda for Tory policies. Execrable.