Elderly writer Harry Chapman has been taken ill, and the painkillers are giving him weird hallucinations. Literary characters from Dickens's Pip to Melville's Bartleby materialise in his hospital ward, Fred Astaire sashays across the bedspread, and his unmourned mother returns from the grave to pour insults in his ear.
Reading Paul Bailey's compelling novel, I found myself imagining a whimsical television adaptation in the style of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective, with colourful special effects and star cameos. But that would miss the point – Bailey's writing is quiet, not brash. He delicately renders Harry's slips in and out of consciousness, almost imperceptibly eliding the real and the fantastic.
Bailey's descriptions of his protagonist's lucid moments are less enjoyable, recounted as they are in a mixture of stilted prose and archaically formal dialogue ("'I should very much like you to call me Harry.' 'I think I can oblige you on that score'"). Amid all this buttoned-up Englishness, the occasional burst of profanity comes as blessed relief, like a draught of air in a stuffy room.
The book's final stages, however, are perfectly judged. As the end approaches, Harry's visions give way to memories of failed romances and professional disappointments, but also to an affirmation of his delight in language. Like his nurses, we are finally won over by his eloquence, and we too miss him when he's gone.