Half of the Curtis Brown Book Group were sent a copy of Barbarians by Tim Glencross for our March/April read. I’ll admit to being a tad apprehensive when I read the strapline ‘Love. Politics. Art. Money.’ The last time I read a political novel was probably way back in the 80s when I read Kane and Abel, and that was only political because it was written by a politician. Now, I’m not saying I don’t like a meaty novel, but politics has never been my thing; I prefer to get away from political parties when at all possible.
With this in mind I was pleasantly surprised to find that Barbarians isn’t heavy at all, but wryly pokes fun at the ruling class with a subtle sense of humour. I’ll admit that I didn’t find the book as humorous as some of the other book group members did, but we all take our humour in different ways.
The novel starts in 2008 and revolves around the Islington smart set. Sherard Howe is publisher of a well-regarded left-wing magazine, while his wife Daphne, a feminist writer whose first book is regarded as the cornerstone of feminist Blair-era literature, is about to publish her second tome. As their adopted daughter, Afua, is starting to make waves in political circles, removing herself from her troubled start in life, their natural son, Henry, is seemingly less ambitious and wondering in which direction to move his career. Add university friends Marcel, son of a Belgian minister, and aspiring poet Buzzy to the mix and you have a tale of power, ambition and unrequited love.
The author’s background is very evidence from the beginning. Tim worked as an MP’s researcher and speechwriter before becoming a lawyer, and he’s obviously writing about what he knows. Throughout the book we get insights into politicians and Parliament along with the egos and heartaches of the people involved in running the country. Art is the binding ingredient that runs through the book, from the art show put on by Sherard, and the frequent references to C19th literature to the bottle of beer that is the catalyst for the changing fortunes of the set.
I can’t say that by the end of the book I felt much sympathy for any of the characters, although Henry was by far the most unfortunate in my eyes. Of course you have to read the book to find out why. This lack of sympathy isn’t a bad thing though, each player in the story is fuelled by their own ambition and desires, and while some climb the social ladder there are casualties along the way. Each character is focussed on their own world and how to achieve what they want…ruthless in their ambitions.
As we move into a heightened political phase, when the parties are going to get ugly (or more ugly than usual), this is the perfect book to settle down with. It puts a more human, if no less ruthless, face to the protagonists. So settle down with a bottle of your favourite beer, put your feet up and immerse yourself in a story of life among the barbarians.