Books: Cut-price cannon fodder

Alison Huntley applauds a conjurer who brings seedy showbiz back to life
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The Independent Culture
The Sword Cabinet

by Robert Edric

Anchor, pounds 9.99, 253pp

WHAT IS truth? What is illusion? "Truth to most of the Kings was a cheap plate spinning on a thin stick." Mitchell's father was not a King, and this fact was exquisitely reflected in his death: killed "somewhere between the beginning and the end of an unheard breakfast sentence". Had he been a King, he might have hoped for something more spectacular, after the showbiz tradition set by Clarence the "Cut-price Cannonball". The flight of his life fittingly became the fright of his life, ending with a failed heart halfway across the Medway.

Like Richard II, Robert Edric likes his Kings to die upholding their birthright. In this novel Edric's Kings, though, are a seedy dynasty of showmen in decline, their country no more than a shaky stage-set of fading grandeur and influence (some may wish to see a monarchical parallel). Mitchell, half King but wholly prey to a genetic weakness for embezzlement, nightclubs and stale cabaret acts, trips his way through the tatty maze of family history.

From an 18th-century sword swallower to a failed Hollywood King, Mitchell faces a strange assortment of relatives. But all the dead-ends in Edric's maze are shaped like a question mark. There is always a bald patch in the bizarre psychological topiary through which one glimpses the banal, sour reality of a tenaciously tawdry brand of celebrity.

Mitchell, like some clod-hopping Alice, hot-foots through Wonderland reluctantly adoring the powdery facades, the scandalous illusions, while stumbling upon serial killings, debt, failure and an ex-mermaid (whom he marries). Edric's gloriously discomforting and mysterious novel is, nonetheless, not a thriller. It is a philosophical puzzle as to how, and if, it is possible to disentangle a life from its socially failed, yet genetically proud, inheritance.

Edric tells us as much and we want to know more. Flashing his fairground trickery, he reveals with mischievous disdain our own interest in his pathetic clan. This is the truth of a Cut-price Cannonball's life. Anything else we choose to believe is all done with mirrors.