Man Overboard by Tim Binding

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

On the first page Binding gorges on the poetic possibility of this Baltic fate: "It is cold here and the windows look out over snow-capped trees to the hidden town below. I have a blanket over my legs but still the winds of Mother Russia fly under the door and seize the room." The sanatorium in which Crabb is dying is described as sitting above the town "like a deposed monarch, frozen in attitude, waiting for obeisance".

Elsewhere Crabb is portrayed as a man of few words, a right-wing stiff, so why is he spouting such stuff? At times the character feels uncomfortably like the author's pawn, a literary marionette. He cor-blimeys at renaissance masterpieces during a posting in Venice, muses on Keats and even hangs Picasso prints in his hospital ward during a bout of jaundice.

Half-way through the novel, something powerful enough to derail my knee-jerk cynicism finally occurs. In an episode reminiscent of "Verochka", Chekhov's tale of a stillborn affair, Crabb inexplicably retreats from the sexual love offered to him by his Italian girlfriend. "She breathed in deeply; her body rose up under my hold, monstrous and misshapen, a cold pallor upon it, as if drowned. I drew my hand back." Before this, Binding's attempt to portray a man at odds with himself only added to the reader's sense of the character as a puppet. Failure brings Crabb to life. Finally, the reader can accept the psychological nuances Binding brings to his protagonist. The retrospective jog through war-tattered London becomes strangely haunting.

This novel certainly has its faults and Crabb's synthetic literariness repeatedly jars. But Man Overboard is an enjoyable read, and streaked with a quiet lyricism for which you can forgive many sins.