Kevin MacNeil , The Brilliant & Forever: 'Alpacas are human, too', book review

The Brilliant & Forever is a weird, original and moving book about a literary festival on an unnamed Scottish island where everyone is an aspiring writer, including the talking alpacas

I’m very wary of novels that purport to be about the power of storytelling.

Isn’t it too easy, too glaringly obvious, that everyone who writes and reads already believes wholeheartedly in that premise?

But when the subject is tackled with as much empathy, joy, and humour as Kevin MacNeil has done here, it’s impossible to resist.

The Brilliant & Forever is a weird, original and moving book about a literary festival on an unnamed Scottish island where everyone is an aspiring writer, including the talking alpacas, who are treated as second class citizens by the humans.

In a rare display of human-alpaca camaraderie, our unnamed narrator is best friends with Archie, a talented writer, despite having hooves and a spittoon to catch his constant dribble. The pair are also best friends with Macy (a human), and the three of them form the moral centre of the novel, as well as providing many of the laughs with their knockabout, self-deprecating banter.

The trio is entering the Brilliant & Forever literary competition, a day-long event in which readers, both locals and outsiders, tell stories, hoping to win the coveted book deal and lump sum awarded by the judges. 

The first third of the novel is the build up to the big day, and MacNeil delivers his story with extraordinary energy, creating a vivid and visceral picture of the strange world he has created.

In the lightness of MacNeil’s prose, there are faint echoes of authors such as PG Wodehouse and Douglas Adams, and the wild flights of fancy reminded me of a rather more obscure author, Mark Leyner, an unfairly forgotten American author with the most lively and outlandish imagination I have ever come across.

As the festival begins, MacNeil gives us each competitor’s story in full, and these range from the ridiculous to the profound, from the pretentious to the vacuous. MacNeil has a good time poking gentle fun at the machinations of the publishing industry here, as well as the vanities of writers, and the constant struggle to say something meaningful in what one writes.

If all this sounds a little light, there is a serious, simmering undercurrent in the relationship between humans and alpacas, a metaphor for the alienation of specific groups of people that is very pertinent in today’s society, and one that MacNeil plays with a subtle hand.

Ultimately, this is a book about how everyone has a story worth telling, and one worth hearing too. Terrific stuff.

The Brilliant & Forever, by Kevin MacNeil. Polygon £9.99

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