Twenty Something, by Iain Hollingshead

October is the cruellest month
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The Independent Culture

Jack Lancaster is 25, and he's having a crisis. His girlfriend is looking fat, he's bored being an investment manager, and he thinks he's a "tosspot". He's spent most of New Year's Eve arguing with his fat other half, and now Flatmate Fred (his, er, flatmate) has told him to do something about it. So Jack picks up a pen and paper, and starts a diary that is to last exactly one year. Twenty Something is the result, and it sees our hero dump the fattie and his job, dip his toe into the political waters, take a trip to Peru and face catastrophic personal tragedy.

I know what you're thinking. The fictional diary format is one quite a few writers think they can have a crack at, yet only a few really succeed. Chuck Palahniuk's attempt, Diary: A Novel as about as interesting as the title. However, Iain Hollingshead joins the select few - take a bow, Sue Townsend and Helen Fielding - to pull it off.

The odds are stacked against him: although Hollingshead is an experienced journalist, this is his first attempt at a novel. Also, bearing in mind that Hollingshead is a 25-year-old who has travelled around South America, who has experience both in the city and at Westminster, and has a flatmate called Phil (you get the idea), he is obviously not working quite so hard in the old creativity department.

But it must be said that Hollingshead writes very well indeed. The novel is sharp, it's exceptionally observant and consistently amusing. Take, for example, his explanation of investment management: "Essentially it involves putting large numbers of apparently meaningless figures into Microsoft Excel boxes. Any numbers will do - one of my more entertaining colleagues once projected a blue chip's profit and loss on the basis of his mates' telephone numbers. His team couldn't work out why so many of the forecasts started '207' and '208'..."

There is much less intelligent humour as well and, be warned, it's not politically correct: at one point, Jack and Flatmate Fred get drunk and cut down a neighbour's tree, before realising they might be in trouble with the law as a result. "'Oh buggeroonies. We're doomed,' says Flatmate Fred ... 'Shotgun, Big Black Ron takes you up the bum first in jail.'"

It's very laddish a lot of the time, and Jack does come across as FHM incarnate, but two things save him from being a caricature. Firstly, as soon as you start thinking, surely nobody would do that, you realise that they would. Perhaps it's the company I keep, but a couple of friends (I reveal no names) have between them woken up after a night on the razzle to find that they have "borrowed" not one but two picnic tables from the local pub; and someone else I know tried to dodge a cab fair by running away, but tripped on the car door and caused £500-worth of damage to his teeth. Anyway, moving on: Jack's flashes of emotional sensitivity also help to make him a sympathetic character. October is a sterling example. September is a hedonistic month, very much in a "City suity goes mental, yah, crrraaaaazy" vein. However, October arrives with a massive emotional blow - which made a friend of mine cry. It's perfect structural timing.

I do have one criticism, although I fear it's a touch misplaced, like saying that Barbara Cartland needs to be a bit more hard-hitting. However, I did feel that, towards the end, the plot was really revving up to New Year's Eve. I know that the novel was coming to a conclusion here, and that it would be pointless having a big showdown on December 19, but there was an almost overwhelming sense of holding off major plotlines until, yes really, about 11.59pm. To the extent that some scenes became a little cheesy.

Still, no harm done. It's a minor quibble. Twenty Something is good fun, and I can't wait for Hollingshead's next offering.

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