You sometimes wonder if there is much novelty left in Justin Cartwright's novels. The Song Before It Is Sung (2007), a pointed re-telling of the Von Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler, was a genuine departure, but To Heaven by Water takes us back to Cartwright-land, a vexed and debatable territory awash with angst, pessimism and mid-to-late-life elegy. Everything one has come to expect is here, from the sixtysomething reaching an accommodation with past time (see The Promise of Happiness) to the misty Soho luncheons with old chums (In Every Face I Meet) and the self-finding trips to Africa (Interior, Masai Dreaming). There is even the dangerous animal – not White Lightning's malign baboon, alas, but a rogue elephant brought in to trample the male lead's brother to death out in the Kalahari desert.
Experienced Cartwight-fanciers will know that you need to watch the fauna: it's always liable to drag you down. So, too, are the grand-sounding but essentially phoney pronouncements: "Children crave conventionality in their parents' affairs"; "We all believe we could have led other lives". Then, as characteristic of Cartwright's world as the smell of new-baked bread wafting up from the bakery to awaken the lovers in their lair, comes that stagey dialogue, in which people are addressed by their Christian names just a little more than seems believable ("Robin, what if..."; "Eddie, I am making you...") and most of what gets said could be passed from one character to the other without serious inconvenience to either.
The effect of this stylisation on the reader who knows Cartwright's work well is mildly disconcerting, for the result is not so much a series of novels as a single text, whose separate compartments leach endlessly into each other. This is not necessarily a complaint - the mark of a novelist's climb to maturity is that he goes on writing like himself, only more so – but its effect is to give David Cross, his current hero, a faint air of predictability.
We have seen him before; we have some idea of the demons that caper in his head. His career, as a news anchorman for Global Television, is par for the course, as is the elegy to bygone Rome, the carouses with Richard Burton, the epochal 1960s romance, and the tragedy that lies at its core.
It would be easy to say that the recently retired and newly widowed David is losing his grip. In fact, both events seem mildly liberating: the gymnasium calls, not to mention a buxom fan who summons him to address her book group. It is his children who are about to crack up: lawyer Ed trying to conceive a child with his ex-ballerina wife Rosalie (one of those nervy women in whom Cartwright has always specialised) while conducting a fling with a lickerish trainee; antiquarian cataloguer Lucy, who is being stalked by her flaky ex-boyfriend.
Beyond this triptych, the old ghosts are calling: male friendships – the novel opens with a wonderfully observed gathering of old mates – fading aspirations, cancelled hopes. The twist on the emotional ratchet, which involves David and his daughter-in-law, is deeply shocking, wholly unexpected and, for that reason, slightly implausible.
What distinguishes To Heaven by Water and turns it, after one or two struggles with the faint aridity of its cast, into a convincing take on the English (or rather London) early 21st-first century is the eye for detail - the girls on the Tube who "hold their mobiles as if even down here... they are likely at any moment to receive a message that will change their lives" – and the sheer brio of the writing. Gordon Brown "is from a different time, like something discovered when a glacier moves". The stick-thin women who wander out of Vogue House are "a delicate forest-antelope emerging from a glade". Disco dancers cavort "as though they were thrashing corn or lassoing a mustang or pulling on a hawser". There are the usual hatches (Rosalie's baby), matches (Lucy and her nice new boyfriend) and despatches (elephant-trampled Guy), and the sense of baffled humanity searching for the spiritual materials necessary to redeem their lives and not finding them. Where Cartwright will go after his 10th novel is anyone's guess, but I think his characters need a change of scene. Or even a change of character.
DJ Taylor's 'Ask Alice' is published by Chatto & WindusReuse content