The Opposite Bastard, By Simon Packham
A ghastly cast of oddballs makes a seductive read
Sunday 09 November 2008
Timothy Salt, a "resting" actor ("Nigh on twenty years in the acting profession had given me a solid grounding in DHSS form filling"), has exhausted the patience of the authorities. He is assigned as carer to a brilliant quadriplegic, whose name, Michael Owen, its owner bitterly resents. Michael has made it to Oxford, where everyone is keen to meet him, though not to get to know him. Philip Sydney, a posh boy with a curious hostility to poshness, seizes on Michael for the lead in his avant-garde, hopelessly amateur production of Hamlet. He ropes in a fellow student, Anna Jenkins, sweet, daffy and uncertain, as the ideal Ophelia. So, Philip wants Anna (in every sense); Anna wants Philip (romantically); Timothy wants a break, and sees Michael getting it. Michael, the gruff, still centre of this self-centered world, just wants to have an orgasm.
Michael calls himself " the quad", the "crip", or "wheelchairboy", and refers to his "spaz-chariot". Timothy, on whom Michael has bestowed the caustic sobriquet "De Niro", tenderly refers to his charge as "Ironside", or, for variation, "raspberry ripple". As for Philip Sydney, his language is so free of sensitivity that it would be pointless to quote from it.
At this point, up pops Nikki Hardbody, a television director, who wants to film the making of the production. She has two talents: she can charm the pants off any male present, and make even the kindest people perform prodigies of tastelessness.
Timothy feels the last of his little fire being stolen by Michael, and when Michael turns out to be a compelling Hamlet and Anna is rather drawn to him, he decides that something must be done. The failure of his scheme, and of Philip's, and of Nikki's, forces him to all the best decisions.
This book overturns a commonplace of literature: that you must care about the characters to care about the story. You don't care about these characters at all, but somehow you care about how they'll end up.
The ending, or epilogue, as the author chooses to call it, wraps everything up in a cocoon of fairytale. Yes, the ends are tied; yes, true love prevails; yes, redemption is reached (though Philip is left out of the dance). All of this is plausible, but a bit rushed. Nevertheless, this novel is seductive.
To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthdaybooks
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