The Book of Ash, by James Flint

Anthrax in the coffee - or just bits of Dad
Click to follow
The Independent Culture


At just over 400 pages, James Flint's The Book of Ash is not a novel to be undertaken lightly. Like his debut, Habitus, his latest is a baggy monster that shambles along, throwing out random insights and nuggets of erudition along the way. Flint is a writer who, at his best, is able to make exciting connections across diverse intellectual fields in a manner that's both creative and dynamic. However, for all its intellectual pyrotechnics, The Book of Ash fails to ignite.



At just over 400 pages, James Flint's The Book of Ash is not a novel to be undertaken lightly. Like his debut, Habitus, his latest is a baggy monster that shambles along, throwing out random insights and nuggets of erudition along the way. Flint is a writer who, at his best, is able to make exciting connections across diverse intellectual fields in a manner that's both creative and dynamic. However, for all its intellectual pyrotechnics, The Book of Ash fails to ignite.

It opens, intriguingly enough, on an American base in Yorkshire. There, the central character, Cooper James, a programmer who writes code that directs American military satellites, receives a mysterious package that triggers a full-scale security alert. A coffee canister containing white powder has, post-9/11, got the Americans spooked, wondering whether, in their cosy imperial outpost near Whitby, they're the subject of another anthrax attack. However, the ashes are the remains of Cooper's long-estranged father, Jack Reever, a sculptor who walked out on his son when he was still a boy. This prompts an uncharacteristic bout of introspection in the apparently hard-nosed Cooper that eventually results in that most emblematic of quests: a search for his absent father.

The trail takes Cooper to America where he tracks his father's unlikely progress through the country and his creative shifts from artisan stonemason carving funereal statues in Vermont to crazy neo- conceptualist who has a scheme to create sculpture from nuclear waste. Reever's unlikely trail acts as a trigger for reflection on Cooper's behalf. In several flashback scenes, he goes over his childhood growing up on a hippie commune in Cornwall, an experience so repellent it turned him, like Saffie in Absolutely Fabulous, into the straightest of straight arrows, a man who despises non-conformity in all its forms. Naturally, confronting his father's chaotic legacy in some obscure byways of America provokes a profound rethink on Cooper's behalf about the terms in which he has conducted his relationship with both his absent parent and himself.

The opening hints that The Book of Ash will be an exploration of American imperialism, a domination that is as much cultural as political. It also suggests it will probe the complex and troubled "special relationship" between the US and the UK, plus illuminate the effects that the US's increasingly authoritarian attitude, post September 11, is having both home and abroad. Alas, we get little of this in the book, which instead heads off down some obscure, if entertaining, byways that reflect on the history of alchemy and its relationship with art and the modern nuclear power industry. It's a failing compounded by the novel's poor technique. To be blunt, Flint cannot write character at all elegantly, and instead resorts to the sort of overstatement and clumsy tautology (the central character stating, internally, that he is, say, "angry", before proceeding to demonstrate that anger through dialogue) that would shame a creative writing student. No matter how many clever post-modern tricks the writer employs (after WG Sebald, Flint splices photographs throughout his text), the novel ultimately fails because the author cannot get the basics right.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK

Comments