Imogen is missing, Toby realises. He is not sure what has happened to his girlfriend, but suspects that she has run away from their Kentish Town home with her old flame, Gideon. Toby seeks succour in lager and cocaine, and infiltrates the Kensington estate agency where Gideon works in order to track Imogen down and take revenge on his rival.
Despite Toby's erratic investigations and attempts to take control of the situation, events unfold at their own stately pace. It becomes apparent that he is unwilling or unable to tell us exactly what is going on. Not until the very end of this novel are we fully enlightened about Toby's obliviousness to fundamental new aspects of his existence.
It is a testament to Olivia Liberty's command of her narrative that she can pull off this challenging feat of extended deferment. In part, that relates to her observational skill. The stress that accompanies trauma often heightens perception, if not insight. Nothing in Toby's immediate environment goes unnoticed, from the bite-sized gap in the rim of a polystyrene cup, to the grass he sees growing high up in a roof gutter.
As well as inanimate objects, Liberty's eye takes in human foibles with merciless clarity. Toby's search for Imogen brings him into contact with an eccentric and troubled run of humanity, which includes Nigel Harmsworth-Mallett, an ageing estate agent who lives in his battered Mercedes. These days, Nigel copes better at downing Drambuie than closing deals, as evidenced by his appearance: "His soft face was cream-cheese pale apart from his nose, which was red with blood, as though he'd been hung upside down." Evil comedy informs the portraits of all of the characters, including a small boy on a BMX selling wraps of coke with adult gravitas: "'Two,' said the child, lips scarcely moving, eyes on the money. 'Two hundred'."
There are conceits here, notably in the stylised names (Martin Amis's approach to character-naming continues to spread): Toby Doubt, Gideon Chancelight et al. But a little ludic indulgence can be excused in a writer who has crafted a world with such luminous perception. The denouement is both comic and macabre, and, in a startling reversal, a cathartic insight into the power of love. There was an echo of Muriel Spark in the way Liberty's astringent wit is accompanied by glimpses of an appalling underlying reality. A high order of comparison, but appropriate for an unusually strong debut.Reuse content