Virago £8.99 (288pp). £8.54 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Disappear, By Talitha Stevenson
Friday 15 July 2011
Last year saw a rush of fiction inspired by the financial crisis, including novels by ex-city worker turned novelist Alex Preston and comic writer Paul Torday. Talitha Stevenson's new book, while pondering the dangers of "making money from money", also traces the break-up of a far from recession-proof marriage. As in many credit-crunch tales, the collapsing markets are seen as representative of a more deep-seated malaise.
Newly-weds Charlie and Leila Bell appear to live a charmed life. Charlie is a good-looking hedge-fund manager, Leila does up Portobello flats. But with the electronic dance of the money markets demanding their full-time attention, they forget to invest in the things that count. It's while on holiday that Leila catches her husband in a poolside clinch with another woman. When next we meet, Leila has left her husband and moved into her sister Kate's down-at-heel council flat in Bayswater. The sisters, estranged for over seven years, have old scores to settle and ghosts to lay to rest. Kate is a recovering alcoholic and Leila's unexpected appearance revives memories of a problematic childhood. Their relationship intensifies when Leila takes a job beside her sister working at a drop-in centre for drug-addicted teens. The hard scrabble world of the Thomas Summerdale Centre provides a stark contrast to the gilded lives of west London's more entitled elite.
What starts out as a smart insider satire of pre-crash excess quickly turns into a more serious modern day morality tale. Moving from the hedge-funders to the have-nots, the novel is told in two discrete parts. Towards the end of her quest for a more fulfilling existence, Leila finds herself forced to choose between life with a well-meaning youth worker, or taking back her newly shriven husband.
By the time Notting Hill Carnival rolls around again, we've almost forgotten what Charlie represents. While the drawstrings of the plot may not entirely pull together, Stevenson is a thoughtful writer and her characters have real psychological depth. In particular Charlie, who, unlike his fellow "hedgies", never entirely conforms to type. It is a novel that captures the preoccupations of a particular time and place, but already feels slightly historic.
A heartfelt read that never pretends to know what a hedge-fund actually is, and makes the worthwhile point that people, like financial institutions, are never too big to hit rock bottom.
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