Glow (8 May 2014) by Ned Beauman
The biggest challenge involved in reviewing a Ned Beauman book is knowing where to start. His stories are such eclectic mixtures of different characters and situations, with so many wild tangents and twists, that I feel it would probably be easier to just write 'expect the unexpected' and leave it at that. However, apparently the point of writing a positive review is to persuade other people to want to read the book... So here goes.
Glow starts with the protagonist, Raf - a Londoner with a sleeping disorder and a broken heart - attending a party in a launderette, where he's persuaded to try a new drug known as glow. At the same party, he spots a beautiful girl and instantly becomes obsessed with seeing her again. Okay, so this doesn't sound very interesting so far, but the first few pages are where the normality ends. From there, the book morphs into an unconventional conspiracy/drug thriller featuring a pirate radio station, soundless white vans and a very unethical PR man called Fourpetal. And a lot of foxes. Raf and his best friend Isaac become involved when their mutual friend Theo is kidnapped, unwittingly plunging themselves deeper and deeper into the sinister machinations of a global corporation.
Ned Beauman is the author of two previous novels, the fantastic Boxer, Beetle and the less good, but Booker-longlisted, The Teleportation Accident. Both were at least partially set circa WWII, so Glow marks Beauman's first real venture into contemporary fiction. And although I loved Boxer, Beetle in particular, reading Glow made me wonder why he hasn't always written stuff like this. I would probably have liked the story anyway, but like the author's previous books, Glow is elevated to another level altogether by its brilliantly inventive narrative style. Playing with language, repeatedly delving into short but detailed flashbacks to flesh out minor characters, throwing complex scientific explanations into the mix... The writing never stops being surprising and delightful, and the sparkiness of it is perfectly suited to the setting of modern-day London, equal parts hedonistic playground and brutalist nightmare. Having felt rather lukewarm about the main character in The Teleportation Accident, it was a relief to find that Raf was likeable and that most of the characters, while flawed in a very realistic way, were easy to relate to (with a few deliberately grotesque exceptions).
Previously, Beauman's narratives with their frequent coincidences and humour have reminded me a lot of Jonathan Coe, but this time I was put in mind of David Mitchell too. If you enjoyed the stories in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, chances are you will love this - it's like one of those taken and fleshed out into a full-length book: similarly original and intelligent and unpredictable.
I know some people have been put off Beauman's books by The Teleportation Accident, and others by comments he's made about readers, but honestly, I can't recommend Glow enough. When I reached the end, my immediate thought was that I wished I could scrub it from my mind so I could have the experience of reading it for the first time all over again: that's the hallmark of a really great book, as far as I'm concerned. This is my favourite of 2014 so far, and despite the fact that we're only a week into February, I feel that if I read anything better this year, it will be an incredible year for books.
I already can't wait for his fourth novel.
I received an advance review copy of Glow from the publisher through NetGalley.
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