Top positive review
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A maze without a centre...
on 22 April 2013
With Bedford Park, Bryan Appleyard has created an extraordinary blend of crime thriller, evocative period piece, philosophical musings on will and intention, and in the process has created a novel of poetic richness. He has stuffed it full of exotic, larger-than-life characters, some real and some fictional. It is an ambitious book, posing many big questions, and is chock-full of allusions, references and recurring themes which are expertly handled. Journalism, and truth - even whether there is such a thing, or if it matters - form the backdrop to the activities in the London suburb.
An American, Cal Kidd, comes to London and immediately meets the exuberant Brian Binks in an ABC coffee shop. Following Binks's particularly gruesome murder, Cal gets drawn into the strange world of Bedford Park and its weird and colourful characters. He meets Oscar Wilde and Yeats, falls in love with Maud Gonne, gets punched by Ezra Pound, notating all carefully in ninety notebooks; Cal is a man who prefers writing to engaging with the world. Crucially, he remakes contact with Frank Harris, who he'd last seen in America, many years before. Ironically, Frank, the newspaper editor, prefers deeds to words, his self-will and sexual lust firing himself into action. The story charts Frank's decline and Cal's inevitable destiny, interwoven with evocative set-pieces.
The many themes - water, wetness and ice; fire and its effects, both literal and symbolic, windows, child prostitution, secrets, even the significance of looking at something from above or below - are handled and developed with great subtlety, like leitmotifs. Water plays a crucial role: the book begins and ends on water, characters are compared to it, as if flowing, connecting. London is 'a woman with wet shoes and glorious eyes lighting up her wet pale face'. Lips are dry, made wet; the book itself leads ultimately to 'death by water'.
The book is haunted by a mechanistic, inhuman view of life, voiced by Frank: "Everything is connected and nothing matters." The idea of will, and intention, whether we can ignite our real selves with a 'fire inside', or whether our destinies are merely carried along by watery forces flowing beyond our control, is a dominant theme of the book, as is the question of our natures, and whether we can choose to go against them. Appleyard suggests that we can, but, "the cost may be higher than you bargained for".
Bedford Park is beautifully written, and both Appleyard's descriptive power, and his sensitivity for capturing the feeling of a moment, are one of the revelations of this hugely enjoyable book. His erudition and the range of references and symbols he employs never intrude or disrupt the pace of the storytelling, which kept me glued to the screen. Highly recommended.