Tim Walker’s first novel has set itself a challenge. How to weave four unpleasant modern archetypes into compelling fiction? There is Jerry Manville, an ageing, malcontent ad-man with more mortgages and ex-wives than his heart can handle. Ex-number one, Penny, has transported her hurt to France where she re-marries only to begin an affair with her gardener: ooh-la-Lady Chatterley, peut-être?
Their son Conrad is, in the present parlance, a Hoxton twat, whose hipster status updates include his moustache, his customised bike and his sexual frustration. Isobel, the seeming sensible daughter, drifts to Dubai, where she seems surprised to find herself married with twins and a monumental addiction to an online game.
The over-privileged, underwhelmed Manvilles are united only by their family home in Islington, which two decades before had symbolised Pen and Jerry’s hopes for a perfect life. Pen even memorialised these dreams in a series of beloved children’s books called The House on the Hill. It is a simple, effective device that enables Walker to weigh the Manvilles’ descent into disillusion against their original optimism. This is achieved via a plot kick-started by the house’s imminent sale, and derailed by squatters whose decision to throw an anti-capitalist hootenanny allows all hell to break loose.
Completion is, as Walker’s day-job suggests, a journalist’s novel: a story about real estate with the accent firmly on the real. The settings, characters, and their stubbornly material concerns are instantly recognisable from contemporary life. While future generations are unlikely to talk in awed whispers of Walkerian prose – there is hardly a metaphor on show – the writing is clear and readable.
And yet, this insistent middlebrow realism suggests deeper purposes. Walker’s characters aren’t simply in thrall to consumerism, but trapped by it. Confusing value with cost, their narcissistic pursuit of short-term pleasure reduces art, love, work and family to commerce, cool, and self-justification. Walker’s dearth of similes portrays modern London as a place denuded of transcendence. For all their frantic movement in vintage cars and bikes the Manvilles have nowhere to go.
For all their worldly show of 21 century autonomy, the Manvilles remain anchored to 19 century dynamics – children in their parents’ economic and emotional thrall; relationships as transaction (Pen explicitly calls Jerry an ‘investment’); emotion filtered through cash. “I’ll pay. I’ll pay,” howls a shame-faced Jerry towards the end. It seems more than a tilt at Safran-Foerish sentimentality that the most likeable character by far is Alice, Jerry’s young daughter by his second marriage. Her innocent excitement at visiting the real ‘House on the Hill’ is a reminder of what passion and hope really look like.
Completion’s main flaw, ironically given the title, is its rushed ending whose too-easy happiness and glib satire sits uneasily with the tactful intelligence of the preceding 300 pages. Even this unsatisfying conclusion cannot spoil a most impressive, assured and enjoyable debut.
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