BOOK REVIEW / State of a treacherous nation: 'The Psychological Moment' - Robert McCrum: Secker, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ROBERT McCrum's intelligent novel turns a bright, harsh light on the state of Britain. He illuminates the present by focusing on the past, and the light is all the brighter for being, like a lighthouse beacon, intermittent. For much of the time, indeed, the reader is in the dark.

Deception - the reasons for it, the effects it has - lies at the heart of this book. Craig Marshall, a British army officer based in Northern Ireland, has found his talent for propaganda being used in a conspiracy to subvert British politics. Extricating himself, he is pursued by his masters and goes to prison for a murder he didn't commit. His dignified, desperate attempts to persuade the half-American Gilchrist, a speechwriter for President Carter, to take an interest in his story form one thread of the plot. Other strands are provided by Gilchrist's adulterous relationship with Ruth, the Australian journalist who introduces him to Marshall; by Gilchrist's gradual uncovering of the lies which his father, now terminally ill, has told almost everybody; and by the things both Ruth and his father have not been telling him.

McCrum starts his tight if also contrived narrative in 1982, with the Falklands, and reels it back through the years of Margaret Thatcher's rise and Jimmy Carter's fall to 1977, at each stage telling us a little more. Not until the penultimate page are we in possession of the full story.

McCrum gives his characters the awkward grain and minor inconsistencies of real life - in particular, Gilchrist's English seadog father. The weak spot is Ruth, who is feisty, humorous and has a blistering turn of phrase, but whose relationship with Gilchrist remains oddly inert; the question of why, as a journalist, she does not tell Marshall's story is never adequately answered. It's as if she does not fully belong in this book about politics, betrayal and the relationship between fathers and sons, a considerable, if masochistic, pleasure of which is its Washington perspective on a crisis-torn and demoralised Britain.

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