David Szalay's third novel is very nearly brilliant, which is slightly frustrating.
In parts, it's so fabulous that you want to pester your friends with quotes. The Canadian won the Betty Trask and Geoffrey Faber prizes for his first novel, London & the South-East, and his second, The Innocent, was also critically acclaimed. Spring, his third, follows the relationship between a sensitive and self-analytical young man, James, and a woman, Katherine, who has just emerged from a marriage, burnt and nursing raw wounds. James has made and lost millions as an entrepreneur, and he is now ready for love. Unfortunately, Katherine may not be. Then again, she quite likes having sex with him.
James, like all the most credible protagonists, is a mass of contradictions. He is sensitive enough to feel pain at the sight of a dead hatchling being offered worms by its uncomprehending parents, yet opportunistic enough to flog on ebay a grape stalk with dubious similarity to a crucifix. He briefly wonders if Katherine is cold for not feeling a similar sorrow on hearing about the dead chick, but in fact she is just different. Szalay cleverly makes us wonder whether she's unfeeling too, but we find out later that she quietly pays a subscription to the RSPB without anthropomorphising, and her cool veneer is partly born of grief.
The forensic scrutiny of every aspect of a fledgling relationship, from both points of view, is one of the many delights of Spring. Szalay is astonishingly astute on the surging highs and lurching drops; the tendency to post-mortem every date; the heavy fear and chill wind across the heart when indifference creeps into The Other's tone.
James is sharply attuned to nuances in Katherine's emotional temperature, to a completely fascinating degree; his relentless self dissection is not dissimilar to that of the late genius David Foster Wallace – neurotic, hilarious, achingly intelligent and utterly hypnotic.
Szalay is also devastatingly powerful on the mourning that follows the death of a significant relationship: "There were moments there which seemed qualitatively different from everything else.... They would be the moments she thought of at the end of her life.... In a sense they were her life.... When she tried to write them down, however, they had none of their force. Writing them down, trying to transcribe them, made them seem mundane, normal. Nothing special."
But Spring is also extremely funny, in that understated, unexpected way that makes you burst into sudden noise in public places and alarm those around you. Szalay's dialogue is pithy and sharp; his peripheral characters lip-smackingly delicious. A male party guest chasing a female who is uninterested in him but hungrily focused on James, is depicted doggedly continuing with his chat-up lines. How much potency there is in Szalay's choice of words as the male, on repeating himself to his inattentive companion, "insists", and then, in the background, is heard to repeat himself yet again, "with a sort of weariness now".
Szalay's gift for prose is everywhere. James's dog "officiously micturates"; James smiles "palely"; a building is a "monstrous concrete molar". Szalay's talent is also apparent in his multiple references to the light which is a recurring theme in the book, and a metaphor for the ephemeral transience of everything: the light is often beautiful but always subtly different.
There are two slivers of impediment to Spring being a shockingly wonderful, as opposed to merely a mostly excellent book. First, although the narration is third-person throughout, it is alternately focused from different characters' points of view, which works well except for whenever, suddenly and inexplicably, Szalay swoops into the head of another character in the same section, so rendering the narrator omniscient rather than character-specific.
Secondly, there is only sporadic use of argot in one character's sections: Simon is an ethically unfettered horse-trainer (whose chin, incidentally, is "halved like an arse" and "submerged in a wall of wanton obesity"), and the sections from his viewpoint often carry smatterings of West Country vernacular: "She were a lazy so-and-so"; "the fockin yard". Yet this only continues for a sentence or two before reverting to Szalay's own gorgeously articulate voice. Alternate first-person narrators might have made consistency of voice easier.
There is also something implausible about the idea of a heaving mass of paparazzi being allowed into the foyer of a five-star hotel; of one of them being able to hide in a cloakroom; and of a receptionist beginning to speak to one of them after lunch and then, seamlessly, finding that it is 8.20pm.
Still, 95 per cent excellence is something to which most writers can only aspire. And if a book, like a face, is made more beautiful by its few human flaws, Spring deserves to be appreciated by all bibliophiles.
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