Michael Bracewell — art critic and Roxy Music biographer — has published his previous novel, Perfect tense22 years ago. Unfinished is, says his publisher, his “return to form”. It is not his return to form, as his writings in other literary fields have consistently been compelling over the past two decades, up to and including Memory (2021), his non-fiction elegy for late 1970s and early 1980s London, its music, art, fashion and dramatically cheaper rents. As Memory, Unfinished is interested in the effects of time and how London and its people have changed over the past half century.
Perfect tense tells the story of an anonymous office worker who breaks away from his tedious routine on a tumultuous day. On his departure, Unfinished It’s a bit the same thing when we are introduced to Martin Knight, a 50-year-old whose black suit and “indescribable tie pronounce him like a lifer in the service of office work”. Martin is “friendless” and feels “invisible” in a world that no longer cares about him, as he wanders around east London on his way to work at City.
In this description, Martin sounds like an austere man, but it turns out he’s actually an “aesthete” with treasured memories of his youth in the 1970s and 1980s, and a passion for tall ceilings and the good. wine. Martin is not lacking in self-awareness and, during lunch with his old friend Hannah, observes that “my conversation is all about reminiscences. Every fifty steps, I stop to look for something that has disappeared. A shitty pub where I once saw The Damned. That sort of thing.”
Hannah points out that Martin’s daughter, Chloe, who is in her mid-twenties, said “when you talk about punk, you talk like your mother talking about war”. Bracewell’s short novel captures the simplest truth: everyone ages and yet it often comes as a surprise.
Martin evolves in a rarefied environment. He grew up in Surrey but his ex-wife Marilyn belongs to the “wealthy metropolitan cultural aristocracy”, the daughter of a famous Marxist filmmaker from Primrose Hill. Chloe lives in an inherited house in Putney and works two days a week. For all that Bracewell’s characters are privileged, however, Unfinished is human, intimate and moving because it explores universal themes – aging, marriage, friendship, mortality – and celebrates beauty.
Bracewell enjoys describing furniture, architecture, art and especially clothing. He paints each character’s outfit vividly: “A heavy black Italian skirt in meticulously textured wool that came to just below her knee; aubergine stockings and frankly wild heels in black calfskin and tone-on-tone fishnet that smelt of excessive expense. Elsewhere, he’s like a street photographer, finding the time before the decisive moment to find that “a waitress’ dyed-blonde hair has been ripped from her face with a wide black elastic headband, to hang at the side in a sensual style of scary wig”.
While seemingly insignificant, these details stack up to convey not only the characters’ worldview, but also a portrait of the times in which they – we – live. Memory, Bracewell comes from a similar place to the poet Philip Larkin, who said that “at the bottom of all art is the impulse to preserve”. Larkin wouldn’t have enjoyed Bracewell’s unapologetic metropolitanism but, at a time when Brexit and Covid have robbed London of some of its swagger, it’s refreshing to read a novel that appreciates that, for all its faults, the capital is always a huge concentration of cultural energy, style and human potential.
Although there is a tragic ending, the emotional impact of the book has already been sealed in its evocation of how the years can unravel even the strongest bonds. The ending is redemptive and leaves open the possibility of seeing Martin again. Either way, I hope we don’t have to wait another 20 years for Bracewell’s next novel.
Unfinished by Michael Bracewell, White Rabbit £16.99, 192 pages
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