Nothing To Be Afraid Of, by Will Eaves

The dark truths of city life
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The Independent Culture

Will Eaves' debut, The Oversight (2001), was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. It risked being overlooked, however, by virtue of having a plot that is extremely hard to précis. Eaves' treatment of a teenage boy grappling with his family's past and the emerging desires that will mould his future was sophisticated and subtle. While frequently very funny, The Oversight was also strikingly dark - fittingly so, as much hinged on narrator Daniel's discovery that he can see without light. The novel was a brave and remarkable first offering.

Will Eaves' debut, The Oversight (2001), was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award. It risked being overlooked, however, by virtue of having a plot that is extremely hard to précis. Eaves' treatment of a teenage boy grappling with his family's past and the emerging desires that will mould his future was sophisticated and subtle. While frequently very funny, The Oversight was also strikingly dark - fittingly so, as much hinged on narrator Daniel's discovery that he can see without light. The novel was a brave and remarkable first offering.

Nothing To Be Afraid Of matches its ambitions, while signalling a move on from its author's immediate world. Suitably for a book with a staging of The Tempest at its centre, it has a strongly fantastical feel. The twinning of Shakespearian performance and contemporary London might suggest affinities with Angela Carter's Wise Children; Eaves' protagonists, Alice and Martha, are also sisters.

But Carter's vaudeville turn had something of the stage ham's showiness. Wise Children deliberately invoked the energetic felicity of the comedies. As her title suggested, Carter followed the Bard in offering a generous verdict on its subjects. By contrast, Nothing To Be Afraid Of shares with Shakespeare's last play a stubborn cloudiness; a keenness not to simplify or neutralise extremes in human behaviour: ungoverned desire, betrayal, revenge. Its characters are capable of either brutal or mendacious conduct, or the harsh, if apt, observation of their own and others' shortcomings.

This last quality is a necessary presence in any theatre career. It also illustrates something about the capital that Eaves brilliantly documents: its merciless capacity for, and tolerance of, toughness in all events. "A total liability? Rude and alcoholic? Some people only have the constitution for failure," as one character summarises a friend. There are echoes of the mordant truthfulness of Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, or of Balzac's fine study of literary ambition and failure, Lost Illusions.

A fond reconstruction of British popular culture offers an adept comic counterpoint; this is frequently a very funny book. Meanwhile, a key plot development concerns the unimagined consequences of a mockingly dismissive review of the Tempest production - in The Independent. In the case of his novel, Eaves has nothing to be afraid of. This deft, absorbing book more than confirms the promise of The Oversight. Eaves is a master of the dark arts of city fiction. He is to be read, relished - and watched very closely.

Richard Canning is writing a biography of the novelist Ronald Firbank

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