Start From Here by Sean French

The incendiary politics of managing waste
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The Independent Culture

Picador are promoting Sean French, not as the author of two well-received novels, nor as the witty and acerbic commentator revealed in his excellent New Statesman column, but as "one half of the acclaimed thriller-writing duo Nicci French". Don't let that put you off: Start From Here is compelling, authentic, uncontrived, sympathetic and engaging. Everything The Memory Game was not: however, there have been six "Nicci French" thrillers since that 1997 debut, and probably they have got better. The sales figures can't be argued with, and Sean French's new solo novel deserves to match them.

Picador are promoting Sean French, not as the author of two well-received novels, nor as the witty and acerbic commentator revealed in his excellent New Statesman column, but as "one half of the acclaimed thriller-writing duo Nicci French". Don't let that put you off: Start From Here is compelling, authentic, uncontrived, sympathetic and engaging. Everything The Memory Game was not: however, there have been six "Nicci French" thrillers since that 1997 debut, and probably they have got better. The sales figures can't be argued with, and Sean French's new solo novel deserves to match them.

Mark Foll may appear a stock character - drifting through metropolitan life in his mid-twenties, allowing things to happen rather than taking control - but he speaks directly to the reader and wins your sympathy within a few short paragraphs. Yet he is one of those people you would normally hang up on: a cold-caller trying to sell something you don't need. But his honesty is disarming. It can be hurtful, too, such as when he can't lie about his feelings for Sonia, who falls for him after a couple of jumps. And it can be hilarious, when combined with French's talent for comic timing. On an official visit, Mark wonders whether the spiky activist Hannah is gay, but does so out loud as she enters the room unseen.

Graduating from cold-caller to claims inspector for Wortley Insurance, Mark finds himself working for the complex and laconic Giles Buckland, who quit evolutionary genetics for insurance when depression left him unable to get out of bed in the morning. Giles and Mark are sent to the remote East Anglian village of Marston Green to check out claims by the villagers that a local incinerator, operated by Wortley's parent company, is responsible for unusual cancer clusters.

Resented both by the villagers, who believe they have come to discredit their research, and by staff at the incinerator, who suspect their aim is to shut them down, Giles and Mark are increasingly isolated. Mark, observing that Giles's chameleon-like behaviour means he appears to change sides according to the company he keeps, realises he can't trust anyone. In such circumstances, you might think, the last thing he should do is fall in love.

The pleasures of this novel are many and varied, from light-hearted but caustic riffs on the British countryside to heartfelt routines about dentistry. At the same time, French opens up a serious debate about the politics of waste management and its impact on the environment, as well as tackling issues of social and personal responsibility by confronting believable characters with complex choices.

French's previous solo novels also featured incineration. In The Imaginary Monkey, Greg burns his personal effects, while in The Dreamer of Dreams, Henry has fantasies of his family reduced to cinders in a road accident. The man's a literary pyromaniac.

Nicholas Royle

The reviewer's novel 'Antwerp' is published by Serpent's Tail

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