Monday, March 17, 2008

Will, No Grace

This appeared in yesterday's DNA.


Some years ago, Matt Beaumont came to the attention of the reading public with his wry, inventive novel, e, which updated Richardson’s Clarissa in providing us with a take on the goings-on in an advertising agency, told entirely in the form of e-mail exchanges. Since then he’s reverted to more traditional ways of storytelling, and this is the case as well with Where There’s a Will, his fifth book.

It’s clear from the beginning that Beaumont is partial to narrative in which his authorial presence makes itself felt in a number of ironic descriptions and asides. Because there are many of these, and because none of them are especially droll, Where There’s a Will emerges as more than occasionally irritating to read.

This is the tale of Alvin Lee, the forty-something “learning mentor” of a group of deviant teenagers in a school on the fringes of London. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Lee is an incurable optimist as well as do-gooder, and this embroils him in hopeless misunderstandings with not just his students and staff but also his extended family comprising partner Karen and four children of varying ages.

After visiting one of his former students who’s now working in a massage parlour, Lee happens to save an octogenarian heiress from being mugged by another one of his wards, and this causes the rich old lady to name him as sole beneficiary in her will. Her subsequent death leads to a farrago of complications during which Alvin’s fidelity, his health and his reputation suffer serious injury.

Through a series of twists, turns, zigs and zags – as well as some jaw-dropping coincidences – all ends well, with Lee reinstated as a paragon of virtue, as various characters discover their penchant for Christianity, rock-n-roll, astronomy and more. When ironic reversals appear – and there are more than a few in this book – you’re past being affected because by then your credibility hasn’t just been stretched, it’s passed breaking point.

With its mannered facetiousness and paper-thin characters, about the only thing Where There’s a Will has going for it is that it moves at a breathless pace. Recommended for those who find Nick Hornby too taxing.

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