For the eternal pessimist Thomas Hardy it was simply ‘fate’. For the American sociologist Robert K. Morton, however it was The Law of Unintended Consequences. For single mum Katriona ‘Kati’ Glass, sitting in her dispiriting and down-at-heel London flat in an area known as ‘The Estates’, it was a simple mistake, a memory lapse, a silly slip of the mind, a tired thought from a tired woman living a tired life. She forgets that the pizza delivery man takes plastic.
Charles Harris (right), a best-selling non-fiction author and writer-director for film and television sets in train a disastrous serious of mishaps, each of which stems from Kati’s ostensibly harmless error. Too exhausted from her daily grind making sure that Every Little Helps at everyone’s favourite supermarket, she sends her hapless son, Liam, off to the cashpoint, armed with her debit card and its vital PIN. Sadly, Liam never makes it home with the cash, the pizza guy remains unpaid, and Kati Glass is pitched into a nightmare.
Liam is found stabbed and minutes away from death. What follows is not so much a conventional crime novel, but a journey through a dystopian world inhabited by people who we might spot in a crowded street and think, “I know that person, but where did we meet?” Central to the story is Jason Worthington, a journalist on a London local paper, The Camden Herald. The Herald is struggling to survive in a world where news – both false and otherwise – is flashed around the city from phone to phone before the conventional press can even tap out the beginnings of a story. Everything he ever wanted to be as a reporter – courageous, hard-hitting, a fighter for justice – is blocked by his newspaper bosses who, terrified of upsetting their advertisers, want only stories about cuddly kittens, school nativity plays and giant cheques being presented to worthy causes.
Trying to find out who stabbed Liam Glass is Detective Constable Andy Rackham. He is a walking tick-box of all the difficulties faced by an ambitious copper trying to please his bosses while being a supportive husband and father. The third member of this unholy trinity is Jamila Hasan, an earnest politician of Bengali origin who senses that the attack might be just the campaign platform she needs to ensure that she is re-elected. But what if Liam’s attackers are from her own community? Sadly, in her efforts to gain credibility on the street, Jamila has been duped.
‘“Respec’ for the brothas and sistas that fight the cause. Dis am Gian’killa Mo broadcastin’ from Free Sout’ Camden …..” For months Jamila had listened to Gian’killa Mo, broadcasting illegally from the Estates. It had made her feel in-with-the-hood, until the day she visited a small flat above Sainsbury’s Local, where Gian’killa Mo turned out to be a fifty-three-year-old white primary schoolteacher with a degree in Greek drama and a room full of old valve radios.’
As Liam Glass lies in his hospital bed, kept alive only by a bewildering array of tubes and bleeping monitors, Worthington, Rackham and Hasan flutter around the light of the central tragedy like so many moths. Each is dependant on Liam’s fate in their desperate scrambling for the next rung on their career ladder. Harris has clearly spent many a productive hour in the company of journalists and he lampoons the peculiar language beloved of tabloid headline writers. Should Liam’s absent father actually prove to be a football star, how best to head up the story? Two reporters toss ideas back and forth between them:
“Premiership Love Rat Abandoned Son To Life Of Violence,’’ added Zoe with more relish than Jason thought was necessary.
‘We don’t want to be too hard on the father,’ he offered with a tremor of concern. ‘What about “Top Player’s Pain Over Stabbed Son”?’
‘” Love Child Booted Into Touch”,’ said Snipe. ‘”Cast Off Son Pays Ultimate Penalty”,’
‘” Secret Grief Of England Star”?’ suggested Jason hopefully.
In the wake of the attack on Liam Glass, tensions rise on The Estates. Jamila convenes a meeting which she hopes will calm tempers and cast her in the role of peacemaker. Inevitably, the meeting descends into chaos and then farce, as the different factions shake each other warmly by the throat. Harris saves his fiercest scorn for the concept of Community Leaders. Observing that solid, upstanding suburbs have little need for anyone to lead them, he says:
“The Estates….spawned dozens, scores, hundreds. They boasted elected leaders and appointed leaders, self-styled leaders and would-be leaders. They acquired a couple of reluctant leaders (usually the best, and in short supply). They developed voluble leaders and argumentative leaders, attractive leaders, inspirational leaders and scary leaders. There were even a few leaders who knew what they were talking about.”
The back cover of the novel likens this book to Catch 22. That claim may be a little ambitious, but The Breaking of Liam Glass is a brilliant satire on modern Britain, scabrously funny, full of venom and a crunching smack in the mouth for those who seek to protect certain ideas and practices from criticism. Perhaps nothing will ever rival Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, but Harris’s novel shares one vital element. Remember how, after hundreds of pages of surreal humor, Catch 22 suddenly darkens, and leads readers into one of the blackest places they will ever have visited? So it is with The Breaking of Liam Glass. You will laugh at the knockabout fun that Harris has with the ridiculous state of modern Britain, but in the final pages all fades to black and a shiver will run through your bones.
The Breaking of Liam Glass is from Marble City Publishing, and is available here.