Melville House, £9.99, 224pp from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
The Canal, By Lee Rourke
Day after day, an unnamed narrator sits on a bench by a polluted, graffiti-tagged stretch of canal. Having abandoned his job, he sits and watches the world go by: the aeroplanes in the sky, the workers in the offices, those out walking their dogs or looking for trouble. He offers no explicable reason for his behaviour; other than that he is bored. To him, "Boredom is powerfull...[it] should be embraced.". That sentiment which drives Lee Rourke's thoughtful, occasionally disturbing and curiously affecting debut novel.
The Canal's opening suggests that what might follow is a kind of skewed love story. The narrator soon meets a similarly apathetic woman who joins him on his bench, occasionally talking, sometimes providing nuggets of information that he begins to crave. But though this is the key driver of the narrative – "Boredom is not that removed from desire" – Rourke is more concerned with the ways we create meaning out of a culture that has long gone beyond our comprehension.
In this respect, Rourke is firmly aligning himself with his influences – Beckett, Ballard, Jean-Philippe Toussaint – but The Canal feels as though it is stepping out into its own territory. Modern urban life is captured here with precision – from feral youth gangs to migrant workers, from businessmen conducting extra-marital affairs to foul-mouthed dog owners – and both dialogue and observations are brilliantly convincing. These do, however, become progressively darker, culminating in a dénouement as shocking as it is unexpected.
His conversational, naturalistic prose gives Rourke's narrator a convincing voice, and the effectiveness of this confessional style means unsatisfying niggles only surface once the book has been put down. The deliberately restrained vocabulary can, on occasion, work against the novel. The word "snazzy", for example, should not really appear eight times. Similarly, the passages towards the end concerning the narrator and his brother feel somewhat clumped together and would perhaps have benefited from being interspersed earlier.
These criticisms, however, do little to detract from a novel that has high ambitions and frequently – occasionally dazzlingly – reaches them. While unreservedly a novel of discourse and digression, The Canal also understands that tension and intrigue are just as important as literary devices. It's this careful balance that makes for a refreshing, memorable and powerful novel – and one that confirms Rourke as a writer of exceptional promise.
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