Aome time during Michael Bracewell’s new novel, the mood becomes so elusive, the scene change so abrupt, that you begin to wonder if you missed some vital information a few pages earlier. It’s like reading at bedtime: that absorption in the story just before falling asleep, only to pick it up the next morning and wonder, “Who is this character? or “Did I know that?” The content of Unfinished Business seems dreamlike, fragmentary, except that the writing is also exact and alert, anchored especially in time and space. Best known as a cultural critic, Bracewell hasn’t published a novel in 21 years. It’s quite the return.
It focuses primarily on Martin Knight, a dark-suited Prufrockian clerk, an office “lifer” who commutes between Hackney, east London, and the glass-and-steel canyons of the City to do a job he no longer understands. (Bracewell’s 1992 novel The Conclave featured a similar Martin at an earlier stage in his life.) His daydreams on the train take him back to his suburban youth in 1970s Kent, public school , and the first thrills of life as a melancholic flâneur, smoking posh cigarettes in the Burlington Arcade and dressing to perfection for a cocktail party in the Café Royal. He regrets not going to Oxford, finding himself rather “friendless” at the University of Liverpool, an aesthetic snob who haughtily dismisses his fellow students for their lack of style.
We return to the present and to the root of its inconsolable drift. Marilyn, to whom he was married, is the mother of their child, Chloé. Her life with Martin seems so old to her that it is “unreal”, although the divorce was “angry and sad and like being under a curse”. She’s poised, well-dressed, shielding herself behind the pretty smile she’s known for. We only begin to understand their acrimonious falling out when Martin walks drunk with a couple of mutual friends at their home in Spitalfields. He senses that he is not a sympathetic figure to them, and “his new one after all was the only ugly thing in their beautiful home”. During this time, he feels not only sick in soul but also in body, a burning sensation in his legs exacerbated by too much gin and red wine. It quietly became a mess.
Bracewell charts this denouement with a precision that is both lyrical and ruthless. He’s a brilliant observer of, say, people in restaurants, whether in Hopper-esque images of isolation or ground-breaking romantic duos. The contrast couldn’t be sharper between Martin’s sad solo outings to a glass-walled restaurant overlooking a two-lane road and Marilyn’s delight with her new pal in the “throbbing dark blue” of a restaurant. luxury Italian. This writer understands the theatrical allure of dining in public. And yet sometimes the fixed piece of a social gathering unfolds with languorous finesse only to conclude with an eerie unpoetic clack – “Lunch was sorrel soup, chicken pot pie, and lemon pie” – like signing a journal entry, or slamming the door.
Any sense of bewilderment can be attributed to the unpredictable rhythms of Bracewell’s narrative, its winding, winding convolutions a nod to the workings of memory itself. The technique was on display in his previous book Souvenir, a jewel memoir of London from 1979 to 1986. Even when an episode’s place in the larger scheme is obscure, Bracewell has an incredible gift of putting you in the room with his characters. , nowhere more haunting than a belated digression into a one-night stand that nearly happened between Martin and his friend Hannah in a Craven Street flat – a secret Georgian terrace alongside Charing Cross – whose icy living room at the floor “felt as if they were camping on a dark ridge, alone”. that night”.
The overall tone is so measured that the tragic event at the novel’s climax stuns like a concussion – worse than that, because it’s not even the tragedy we thought was coming. The aftermath of loss points us toward a bruised diminuendo and a touching acceptance that for some it’s time to move on or move on. “The old things had passed away.” But I suspect this Lost Time of a Melancholy Companion will resonate long after the book closes.
Anthony Quinn’s latest novel is Molly and the Captain (Abacus). Unfinished Business by Michael Bracewell is published by White Rabbit (£16.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.