Appeased as Punch

FICTION A PERFECT EXECUTION by Tim Binding, Picador pounds 15.99

"Not all families fall out," Giles Doughty pleaded in In the Kingdom of Air, Tim Binding's first novel. "Not all families are given the chance," came the reply, and its echo can be heard - almost, at times, as the only source of hope - throughout Binding's impressive second novel. Anger and isolation are once again at the heart of the male psyche, humour is a weapon and families teem with their own destruction. Especially the Bembo family, which, when cousins Will and Jeremiah are born between the wars, is still dominated by the Dickensian figure of their grandfather, the Great Bembo.

Before starting a market garden in the Vale of Aylesbury, the Great Bembo had travelled the country, first with his bawdy and violent version of Punch and Judy, then, after hearing Darwin and his "lengthy Devil Tongue", with its antithesis - a morality play announcing a new crusade. Never forgetting that, whether people were to be entertained or redeemed, there was always money to be made, this patriarch bequeathed to his male descendants a sense of themselves as outsiders, an unforgiving morality, a "slow current" of restlessness and, above all, "a need to proclaim themselves to the world, to stand before an audience and perform".

Performance, as Binding points out, depends on the ability to understand the needs of a crowd, and Will and Jeremiah's acts are shaped by their first audiences. Every evening Will tries to make his young mother laugh with music-hall songs, and when she runs off and is written out of the family memory, he grows into a bitter comedian and womaniser. His Mr Punch crows "Satan is dead. We can do as we like" over the dead bodies of Judy and Jack Ketch, the hangman, and the crowd is thrilled, "as if they were seeing their own histories of private cruelty made good, praised in public and thrown wilfully in the air".

Jeremiah's mother, on the other hand, died when he was four and he grows up quiet and serious, reading the Bible aloud to his father. He marries Judith, whom Will tried to seduce, and in the book's tenderest scene, his marriage almost provides intimacy and a cure to the Bembos' compulsion to stand outside the crowd and stare at its dark heart, its "chaos". But people for whom Jeremiah feels responsible are killed and, rejecting the world, he becomes the Public Executioner, under the name of Solomon Straw. Will, Judith and Jeremiah go their solitary ways until emotion intrudes into the one execution Jeremiah desperately wants to be perfect. Their triangle convulses like the puppets in Will's finale.

Binding is needle-sharp in sketching this blighted family, curbing his tendency to voluptuous digression and in the dramatic set pieces - the humiliations and executions - he achieves a startling imaginative power. But when he steps off the Bembos' Olympian or Promethean perch into the crowd to describe the events leading up to the "perfect execution", the narrative seems to sag. There is something congealing about the number of tangled, adulterous webs among the petit bourgeois of Aylesbury in 1963: everyone seems to belong to the "throng of leering misfits" who are so in thrall to their parents and sexual animosity that they could be fairground grotesques. The issue is not plausibility, but how well Binding's dichotomy of order and chaos survives this shift to a general study of human motivation. In the excellent final third, the novel almost snaps back to a portrait of how two men cope with the burden of inherited unhappiness, but still the feeling lingers that naked pessimism, as much as therapeutic optimism, can blunt a novel's effect.

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