The Last Weekend, By Blake Morrison

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The unreliable narrator is nothing new. Nor is the unlikeable narrator, nor even the anti-hero. Ian Goade, narrator of Blake Morrison's new novel, is all of these things. His failure to recognise himself as such lies at the novel's heart. Ian is a primary-school teacher married to a social worker called Em. They live in Ilkeston, in a small semi-detached house with a pond in the garden. They have no children, for reasons which emerge slowly.

Ian is 44, "the worst age for depression". Em longs for a baby but is forced to content herself with a dog called Rufus. Excitement for Ian confines itself more often to internet gambling sites than Em's familiar embraces.

Ian is a man treading water, denied professional success or personal fulfillment. He is also – unknown to himself – a fantasist. The Last Weekend contains two stories: Ian's account of a Bank Holiday weekend in August, and the reader's growing awareness of the gulf between that account and the likely truth. "How can I judge it when I don't know what I'm looking at?" asks one of Morrison's characters during a debate on representationalism in art. Resolving that question in relation to Ian's self-deluded narrative is Morrison's challenge to the reader.

Ian met Ollie at university. The two became best friends, despite a difference in their backgrounds – Ian northern and working-class, Ollie the public-school product of the Home Counties stockbroker belt. The polarity is a cliché: so, too, is Ian's unflaggingly chippy response to it. Ollie has become a barrister, with all the trappings of worldly success. The men drift apart. A contributory factor is Ollie's wife, Daisy, formerly Ian's girlfriend. Daisy's background closely resembles Ian's, but for Daisy the past has been buried.

The novel takes place over four days in a house rented by Ollie and Daisy close to the coast in East Anglia. They are accompanied by their son, Archie, and Milo, a client of Daisy's headhunting firm, with his two small daughters.

"I've not spent my life in jealousy but it did briefly poison my existence," Ian tells the reader in a patent untruth. Ian's progress from jealousy to madness provides the novel's dynamic. Ollie, Daisy and Em remain cardboard cutouts. Em parrots social-worker platitudes; Ollie is a construct of class assumptions, and Daisy little more than a hank of hair and a pretty face. Even the landscape is sketchily drawn. It is the assuredness of Morrison's portrayal of Ian's descent which makes The Last Weekend compelling – and lifts a familiar, even melodramatic story skillfully above the commonplace.

Matthew Dennison's 'Livia: Empress of Rome' is published by Quercus