Clear Water by Will Ashon

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Will Ashon's debut novel Clear Water concerns a shopping centre lying close to the Thames estuary in Kent. The centre descends 400 metres below sea level and has a sinister black space-shuttle decorated with a woman in a white ballgown on its trunk. The shuttle is designed to defend Clearwater (and potentially the whole of London) from attack but, instead, it makes the shopping centre a place of almost occult attraction to six strange but beguiling characters, ranging from an alcoholic ex-spin bowler to a murderous psychopath who has named himself King James.

The most immediately attractive of Ashon's cast is Peter Jones, "the premier lifestyle journalist of his generation", who has generated from writing style pieces about badly dressed friends to pieces about books, films, music, garden furniture and food and finally "the semiotics of whatever everyday object caught his attention". Now he's trapped as "the Kafka of the Designer Pepperpot", imprisoned in a constantly simmering marriage, unable to cope with his swearing son, Gus, and fearing that he cannot summon up emotion about anything beyond the trivial. Jones is particularly interested in "blankness", which may be a comment on the "blank generation" fiction of Ellis and McInerney, but seems more a way of separating Jones from the more emotionally intemperate characters that surround him.

King James's first-person autobiography aims for similar neutrality, but his terrible anger seethes behind every line. The descriptions of his atrocities are rich in black humour, and owe something to Michael Moorcock. King James has taken up with Binary Rob, a young hacker whose love he craves, in a decommissioned military building, where he plans serious destruction. He's obsessed with Verna Landor, a Vera Lynn-type wartime singer and the only woman this homosexual man has ever loved. Retired spin-bowler Jimmy Patel also craves blankness (mainly through painkillers and booze) but it's a state of grace he can rarely achieve due to his terrible depression. His brother owns a shop in Clearwater and believes he's sent Jones to spy on him. The last character in the intricately connected chain is Mandy, a shop assistant Jones is attempting to befriend in order to glean insider information about the shopping centre for a misguided attempt at a book. The link between these characters is partly Clearwater, but also a mysterious British company called Barnums started after the war by Verna as a secretarial service before developing into something far more sinister.

As Ashon moves his characters towards their fates, it becomes clear that this is a very dark novel indeed. Most of the jokes are bleak (Jones's editor on the broadsheet he works for is a war correspondent who had his legs blown off playing a drinking game involving landmines in Bosnia and spends all his time getting ex-military types to write articles about sofas) and even small moments of humanity (Mandy confiding in Jones about her father abusing her) turn out to be tricks (the girl is lying). But this isn't straightforward nihilism: there is a genuine sadness beneath the sour humour, and some of the best passages of the book concern what makes life worth living. It's a very confident debut author who offers his characters no hope of redemption, and it's his intellectual fury that makes the novel so memorable.

Ashon's day job is running a British hip-hop record label, Big Dada, and, although he has chosen a shopping centre rather than the music industry as the subject for his world-weary satire, this is (in the very best sense) an insider's account of dealing with finance, written by someone with a precise understanding of the commercial world. Occasionally he stretches this for comic effect (Clearwater houses a shop that sells miniature marshmallows in the shape of Kant and A J Ayer, and PRs have access to lifestyle journalists' personal account information), but for the most part his observations of materialism are chillingly accurate. Ashon shares some sensibilities with Douglas Coupland, but this is a defiantly English novel, with an exquisite awareness of such English institutions as cricket, the army and public school. It's a beguiling and arrestingly original mix, and suggests that unlike poor doomed Peter Jones, Ashon has a long literary career ahead of him.

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