Most of us have transformative stages in our professional lives that we gloss over on our CVs; stages when we were still learning our trade. The New Republic comes from one such period in the career of Lionel Shriver.
It is a farcical satire on the politics of terrorism that she wrote between Double Fault and her blockbuster, We Need to Talk About Kevin. (Double Fault was published in 1996 in the US but not until 2007 here, four years after the release of Kevin, when it was met with favourable reviews – which may be why Shriver thought it a good idea to dip again into her back-catalogue of unreleased affairs.)
In an author's note at the start, she writes: "The New Republic was completed in 1998. At that time, my sales record was poisonous. Perhaps more importantly, my American compatriots largely dismissed terrorism as Foreigners' Boring Problem. I was unable to interest an American publisher in the manuscript. For years after the calamity in New York [of 9/11], I was obliged to put the novel on ice, because a book that treated this issue with a light touch would have been perceived as in poor taste."
Rather than indignation at her compatriots' lack of interest pre-9/11 and po-facedness after it, Shriver should have taken more note of those publishers' indifference for what is some remarkably flat writing. Perhaps even more grievous to British readers is a tin ear for our dialect that would have shamed even Dick Van Dyke: "When you're flush, you sort out that you right fancy stuff that's dirt cheap. Like bangers and beans – which is yards better with mealy-mouthed forty-nine-P sausages than the posh sort with walnuts." Gor blimey, guv.
It's a shame, because the novel's premise is intriguing: Edgar Kellogg, a lawyer-turned-journalist, is sent to cover a god-forsaken region at the southern tip of Portugal, where a terrorist group is campaigning for "freedom" with indiscriminate bombings. Kellogg is there to replace the larger-than-life Barrington Saddler, who has, suspiciously, gone missing. But the conceit is let down by unconvincing characters whose idiosyncrasies seem driven by the plot rather than drivers of it. The novel is overwritten, overlong and overly pleased with a twist that is telegraphed so unsubtly that it's hard to get excited about it.
In short, The New Republic is a drag, and it should have been left well alone in Shriver's personal, unpublished archives.