Up Against The Night by Justin Cartwright, book review: Middle-aged angst and a Boer past

This latest novel mixes classic Cartwright elements: age, sex, the past and desperation
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Fans of Justin Cartwright's compendious oeuvre – a dozen novels now since 1988's Interior – will be cheered to discover that all of the essential elements of Planet Cartwright are reliably on display in No 13. There is the wryly reflective middle-aged man looking back on a failed marriage and trying to make sense of the puzzling new world that has replaced his superannuated youth. There are the gibbering ghosts of the voortrekker heritage to drag him back to modern South Africa and, above all, even here amid lashings of fine dining and discreet septuagenarian sex, there is the "violence and the desperation that are never far away".

In the past, Cartwright-man has tended to be in hot pursuit of an enticing but problematic father. Frank McCallister, the 60-year-old hero of Up Against the Night, is, alternatively, fixated on his Boer ancestor, Piet Retief, hacked to death by the Zulu hordes as far back as 1838.

A long-term English resident, who divides his time between Notting Hill, the New Forest and the beach-house in Cape Town, Frank's prospects look middling-to-good. The plus side is represented by Agnetha-from-Abba-style girlfriend Nellie, whom he schemes to marry; negative factors include a vengeful ex-wife and daughter Lucinda, fresh out of rehab and bringing with her a mysterious two-year-old named Isaac on a false passport.

To say that – as Frank and his entourage travel to the Cape, where they eat a great many nourishing meals, head out on safari and watch Nellie's son Bertil take up surfing – not a great deal happens is perhaps to miss the point. For Cartwright's novels are, infallibly, about their characters efforts to make sense of the environments in which they fetch up, generally by coining aphorisms about human behaviour. McAllister is an absolutely pattern example of the breed, deciding at one point that "History is a narrative written for a purpose… but it's seldom able to convey the essence of being human" and at another that "It is true of all great cities that they have many faces".

Each of these statements, with the addition of the word ''discuss'', would make a fine contribution to the All Souls general paper. All this time, though, the experienced Cartwright-fancier will be waiting for the disruptive forces lurking beyond the campfire light to make their presence felt. Here the chief symbol of violence and desperation seems to be Frank's distant cousin Jaco, one-time celebrity survivor of a shark attack, but now fallen on hard times, in hock to the Scientologists (Uncle Frank has to pick up the bill), estranged from his wife and children, convinced that his Afrikaaner buddies have been sold down the river by the new black establishment and avid for reparation.

On the other hand, Jaco's unlooked-for intervention in his cousin's life (bearded, gun-toting and the image of Piet Retief), while the beach-house is being ransacked by Congolese hoodlums, has an unexpectedly positive effect.

Meanwhile, the aphorisms are piling up ("We are against animals and plants becoming extinct. We have adopted these politically neutral causes because we lack a moral and political role") together with the sense, common to all Cartwright's novels, of people lost in metaphysical fog, irrevocably detached from the worlds they would like to call their own.

Up Against the Night dispels certain of these clouds to end with the clang of wedding bells. Newcomers to Cartwright's fiction will probably be struck by its profound air of unreality, the characters who say things like "t hat's terrific, what a good idea. I am so glad" or, as Frank remarks above the smell of the Swedish cuisine, "I love herrings. I love Ikea. I love you. You are so beautiful." I didn't believe a word of it, but as is invariably the case with Cartwright, read on delightedly to the close.