on 17 June 2011
I can't recommend this too highly. A dazzling first novel which, though very short (and all the stronger for it), packs an awful lot in thanks to the author's crisp, succinct & virtuoso prose - often as lean as a butcher's dog - and tight plotting which combine to make this a real page-turner.
Working on several levels the author uses his `hero' to explore key themes in literature whilst he attempts to reclaim the truth about his life and manages to make memorable use of cycling along the way. And all the time the story-teller's traditional function is being twisted-and-turned as though it were the theme at the heart of some fantastic set of variations.
Clearly a writer well worth discovering - I'm already looking forward to his next novel. And what a joy to read such a rewarding short novel - never the easiest of forms but one so well-matched to the discerning reader's wishes in this busy age - proving that size isn't everything. Here it's most certainly the quality and not the quantity that counts.
on 21 July 2012
I'll admit, I first bought VAULT for its subtitle - "An Anti-Novel." I thought it took some gumption for the author, David Rose, to give his novel a tag like that in our current publishing climate, and I hoped that the book would make good on its promise. The splendid cover made an additional temptation; on the Acknowledgments page Rose himself even offers a disarming remark about hoping his book lives up to it. On both counts - subtitle and cover - it does.
VAULT is structured in alternating chapters that give two different versions of the protagonist's life. One set of chapters tells the story of McKuen, a cycling enthusiast from the Southeast of England who becomes a sniper in WW2 and a freelance operative for the intelligence services in the Cold War. This might sound like the well-trod territory of espionage novels such as those of Frederick Forsyth or Len Deighton, which functioned in their day as fantasy compensations for the real decline of England's status in the world. But these chapters are intercut with their revisionist counterparts, first-person chapters in which the hero's "real-life" prototype comments on and criticizes the "legend nonsense" and "novelism" in the alternate sequence. He protests that the author's appropriations of his biography distort it in the service of false heroism and spurious glamour, and against these he offers the corrective of his own more prosaic account.
Rose's anti-novel goes beyond merely questioning conventional literary heroism, however, finally implicating both versions of its protagonist in a condition of moral ambiguity. The key might be found in the "real" main character's description of his relationship with his racing cycle, the "sensation of control" and "exhilaration of being one with a mechanically-perfect machine," so fused with it that he "no longer had to think." It is the same relationship that he has with his sniper rifle. But bicycle races can be rigged, lovers can turn into double agents, and the figure of the lone existential hero, seen from another angle, might turn out to be just a pawn - as much a mere instrument as the rifle and bicycle are to the hero. The intelligence service's deployment of McKuen against the antinuclear movement broadens the frame dizzyingly, raising the possibility that the same commitment to instrumental expertise is behind the construction of the H-bomb and the specter of nuclear annihilation.
If VAULT is therefore also something of a historical novel, it has the advantage of never reading like one. It's not upholstered with boring period detail and barely-digested chunks of research; rather, it convincingly distills an atmosphere appropriate to the era in which it is set. An earlier, more convivial way of life is hinted at only by its absence; cycling as a genuine people's pastime and the "Great War" as a popular, mass mobilization have been chiseled down into grim existential choices made in the cold and dark. I've seldom read a first novel written with such economy, in which so much is suggested in such spare and unsparing prose. And while VAULT refuses many of the easy consolations of more mainstream fiction, it shouldn't scare away anyone who might mistakenly believe that "anti-novel" equals willful obscurity. It's a novel about cycling, guns, and novels that suggests with great clarity that what is obscure is our fates.
on 23 January 2012
This is a suberbly-written novel, telling several stories on several levels, with themes incorporating bike racing, sniping (of the deadly military kind) and a dual role of first-aider and avenger. McKuen has been injured in the leg during his time in France and the Low Countries in the Second World War, as part of the Allied tide sweeping the Nazis back. After the war, in an adventure that brings him back to post-war Europe, and brings him (his anonymity intact) out of the footnotes of history books, he sees that cycling does no harm to his injured leg. He is able to return to his pre-war love of competitive cycling. I love the notion that a novel can expand on the footnotes of history books, that what is dismissed as legend in a dry study of something can truly have a life of its own in a book. In this one, the characters occasionally rebel against the author, dismiss his romanticising, set the facts right; normally I'm not mad about this kind of post-modern intrusion, mainly, I think, because it's done so smugly and in such a look-how-clever-I-am way, but David Rose avoids this trap. Of his cycling, McKuen states: "In part, it was a vocation, perhaps. In part it was a link with my past, a way of converting the war into a hiatus, a way to stop it destroying me, as it destroyed others, sunk into a restless apathy." I like that idea, that a character can be strong enough to treat something like the war as part of his development. The cycling sequences are very well done - and it's clear to me that David Rose has been a part of this minority sport, and knows it well - but not, I think, overdone. Mind you, I am a fan of cycling, anyway. McKuen goes on to another career with its own perils, goes on arguing with the author who dogs him, goes on to conclusion that the reader can probably guess at. Though low-key, the book is full of humour, and full of surprises, and I enjoyed it very much.
on 10 July 2011
This is a skilfully crafted and satisfying book. While telling an interesting story about a cycle champion who spends the war as a sniper and is later recruited as a spy on account of these skills, the action is moved forward in alternating sections, the first by a purported novelist telling the story of this man in the third person and the second by the subject himself who offers comments and a reprise of the events.
This is an intriguing and innovative device. This does not surprise me for in his short stories David Rose's voice is always very individual, very clever. He may or may not be an expert in cycling and marksmanship as in this novel, or architecture, music, bird watching and many other pursuits as in his short stories, but world he creates is utterly convincing, every detail rings true..
This two-layered perspective gives rise to interesting questions. Ethical- Is it permissible for a writer `steal' someone's life and recast it as fiction? Metaphysical - What really happens in a life? Is there ever a true version? And if there is, is the person who lived that life the one whose version is more accurate? Or is an outsider's view more truly representative. Or is truth a synthesis of the two?
The character, who says he doesn't mind the writer borrowing his life does object to his death being stolen and the book concludes with his re-enactment of the character's fictional `end' which he remembers, ` was left open'.
A great read, buy a copy. It will make you think.
on 2 February 2012
The previous reviewers have done a good job on this excellent debut, so I'd just like to echo the views of the four 5-star reviews I've read. I can understand what's being said about the book's brevity being appreciated in comparison to so many modern novels being door stops. But at the same time I'd have liked it to have been a bit longer as I was enjoying it so much and was disappointed when it was finished. So four and a half stars from me.
One thing no-one else has mentioned. In the copy I read there were occasional inconcongrous words in italics, inserted into sentences. They were definitely out of context. Does anyone know why they're there? I wrote them down and tried to make sense of them to no avail.