Ask Alice, By DJ Taylor

The reader is taken on an intriguing journey
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The Independent Culture

A declaration of interest: as editor of this journal, I brought in DJ Taylor to write "The Bottom Line". In my view, he proves each week in that column that he is a quite superb cultural commentator. Readers will know he is also a fine social historian and biographer. His novels, though, I must confess, have been an unknown quantity to me. Until now.

Ask Alice, which captures the Edwardian era to the Spanish civil war, tells the story of Alice Keach – an ambitious minx, by any standards – raised on the Kansas plains, her elopement with (and speedy abandonment by) Drouett, a near-cad of a travelling salesman, through her brief marriage to a Swedish pastor, and thereon to her success in England as an actress and, through a bigamous second marriage, a wealthy social hostess.

It intertwines with an apparently alternate tale, that of Ralph Bentley, a boy with no knowledge of his origins, who is raised by an uncle, the hapless inventor of"hogpen" – a colour derived from coal.

Drouett, whom we leave early on, survives, and it is his re-appearance in England after a quarter of a century that begins the process of tying together the disparate strings. It is not hard to divine where this is all going early on (although I mucked up the arithmetic, which did put me off the scent), but the attraction is less in the end than in the intriguing journey. Taylor draws heavily on his historical knowledge and, with a strong accent on humour, pays homage to several authors.

He perhaps over-relies on coincidence as the string to bind it all together, and there is something slightly out of reach about both Alice and Drouett. They are locked in mutual destruction, but by force of circumstance rather than intent. Perhaps all this is because time brings with it regrets or perhaps it is that – without really realising it – they have really loved each other all along.

As for Ralph, well, the last line of the book is a jolt, and hints that we might hear more of him. An intelligent, absorbing and most enjoyable book. What else would you expect?

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