Sacrifices, by Michael Fishwick

The fallen head delivers a masterclass in fiction
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The Independent Culture

'Sacrifices' is Michael Fishwick's second novel, and hugely more accomplished than his first, Smashing People. That satirised the publishing industry, laying about that world with glee, but its characters never quite caught fire. But Sacrifices is not only expert in its characterisation; it is also wily in structure. It offers you one story, but tells you five more.

At first, we must unravel a mystery: a charismatic public-school headmaster, Christopher Hughes, has been disgraced. The novel opens with his funeral. What has brought him down: circumstance, or some weakness in his personality? The first witness is his only daughter, Anna, whose voice is fascinatingly cold.

Fishwick contrives to switch attention away from her father, to absorb us in Anna's partial account of herself. The second section, even more skilfully written, shifts us to Daniel, Anna's ex-lover of 20 years earlier. Daniel is now a separated single father, devoted to his teenage son. Stealthily, Fishwick moves the focus further away from Hughes, and involves us in Daniel's own dilemmas.

Daniel's sacrifices become more interesting than the sacrifices (if that's what they are) of Hughes. We become engaged in the sentimental, romantic world of Daniel, and his anxieties about love. The adolescent uncertainties of his son, Jason, are touching and perfectly observed.

Fishwick now plays another trump. The third part develops a new character, Mrs Kobak, a former matron who has once fallen foul of Hughes, even before his move to Deniston, the school at which his career has mysteriously imploded. Originally an Austrian-Jewish refugee, she has featured briefly in Anna's narrative, but we have not expected her to take centre-stage.

For the third time, Fishwick shows his complete mastery of voice, drawing us into Mrs Kobak's slightly befuddled logic and involving us in her concerns about her daughter and grand-daughter. By now the novel has become a study of difficult relationships between parent and child. Only in the fourth section, in which we switch to Hughes's deputy Rainsford, and his only son, Luke, is there an uncertain diversion. Fishwick creates a set-piece in which a host of chatterers, climbers and creeps is assembled by the woman Luke loves. The novel shifts into the satirical mode of Smashing People. Soon we are back on track with Hughes's wife, whose narrative cleverly takes us back to her traumatised childhood.

We do eventually understand Hughes, but the triumph of Sacrifices is to make the revelations, such as they are, almost incidental. Fishwick writes in a careful, exact and exacting fashion. His analogies, his dialogue, his shifts in tone are all expert. But his tactics are what make Sacrifices so good.

Bill Greenwell's 'Impossible Objects' is due from Cinnamon