Interior designers and cat lovers look away now, for Care of Wooden Floors is a disaster novel.
Oskar is a cosmopolitan young man of exquisite taste, a minimalist composer whose best-known work is tagged "Variations on Tram Timetables", which conveys the flavour. His marriage to a Californian art dealer named Laura has just gone pear-shaped and his presence is urgently required in LA, where lawyers are busy unpicking it. Whom does he turn to to care for his lovely apartment in an East European city and his two fluffy cats named after Russian composers, but an old pal from his time at a British university?
The friend, our unnamed narrator, displays the complete antithesis of Oskar's refined sensibilities. He writes council leaflets about dustbin collections for a living, inhabits a scruffy rented flat and, for reasons that become painfully clear, has rarely got past first base with women. He leaps at Oskar's offer, which suggests a free holiday and peace and quiet to start that first novel. The reality, of course, will prove entirely different.
The city turns out to be modern, bleak and hideous, its public buildings still pitted with bullet holes from old revolutions. (By the solid detail of the descriptions, we are sometimes made too aware that the first-time author Will Wiles is an architect and design journalist.) It's the immaculate, white-walled and black-leather design of the apartment that our narrator finds most alarming, though: in particular, the great expanse of exquisitely polished French oak floor.
Oskar never puts in a physical appearance, but his perfectionist personality is omnipresent in the long series of exacting notes that his friend discovers in unexpected places around the apartment. The first of these gives explicit instructions for managing the cats and how to avoid marking the floor. It's not long after this that our flat-sitter makes the tiny error of judgement which will result in a series of increasingly farcical consequences. Polished wood, leather sofas, cats and red wine, he realises, do not mix well. More tragically, he also learns that grand-piano lids are dangerously heavy and that it's safest to leave knives blade-down in the dishwasher.
Horribly, if predictably, compelling, this debut philosophises blackly on life's rumness while unmasking the true nature of a friendship between two oddballs who actually don't know one another well at all.
Rachel Hore's latest novel, A Gathering Storm, is published by Simon & SchusterReuse content