Cairo by Chris Womersley

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Cairo by Chris Womersley

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A book that, given time and patience, reveals its full talent to the reader. Like all the best thrillers it's best not to second-guess – particularly with the assumption that this actually is a thriller.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: February 2014
Publisher: Quercus
ISBN: 9781848663916

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Tom Button has had enough of small-town Australian life, and wants to grasp the nettle at the earliest opportunity and escape for more exotic places as soon as he's free of school and he and a friend can afford it. Until the friend kills that pipe-dream. Plan B for Tom soon becomes the life of a university student in Melbourne, with the chance to live in the apartment his aunt left behind when she died – at least it's in an exotically named development building, called Cairo. But Plan C soon forms for Tom, when he falls in awkwardly with some bohemian neighbours – who still, despite being ten years older, have plans of their own for making their own way to a better life – just not the way Tom ever suspected…

It's only appropriate therefore that this book provided a journey for me – and I use that word knowing all the sickly connotations it's gained from being used in reality TV every week. I have to step around the plot to describe why, but until the final third I was really not sure of giving this book much effusive praise, and certainly nothing like what I felt for the author's last book, Bereft. Having read both his novels so far I was expecting something dark, something edgy, perhaps with a galling matter-of-factness charged by exemplary, clear writing.

And while the writing was very good, I felt the book was stuck between two posts. The narrator, giving us an intimate first-person account of his teenage self back in the heat of 1986, seemed to be providing us with one kind of novel; the author, based on his output so far, a second. And they didn't quite match. Tom's narration was rich and engaging, as far as it went, with him being a small fish in a big pond, and being on the verge of adulthood – it's amazing how many times in these pages he might be said to cross that Rubicon. But the novel was trying to become a genre piece, a thriller – and that was too obviously going to impact on Tom's book. As for Womersley's, I felt he had handicapped himself with using Tom, who was far too naïve and basically taking far too long to tell us what we'd been able to foresee all along. (Even without the blurb, which gives too much away.) Even closer to the end, with several sort-of false cliff-hangers, Womersley was losing his grip, I thought.

But by that end, I think the intention of the author at least struck the inner of its target. In the same way I was completely surprised that Bereft had been down for awards from the Crime Writers' Association, I found this book to be something that you can assume, mostly, is a thriller, but really isn't – it's something that belongs in that much wider, more expansive and more satisfying genre, drama. And by the end, with the characterisation, and everything I mentioned earlier – the intimate level of reconstruction of Tom's world with writing you really can enthuse about – I think it does become a very decent drama.

Who's to say dramas can't involve duplicity, crimes, and other shenanigans? Who's to say a thriller cannot feature pages of seeming longueurs regarding a teenager's domestic life? What prevents an author from being so frustratingly clever, giving call-backs to tiny details and making them so jaw-droppingly relevant way after we forgot them, and doing it several times, just because he can?

Don't get me wrong, I wasn't ever going to dismiss this book; on no stage of that journey did I consider this as being poor, or deserving of a low mark. I still think his writing is far too good for that, and only with seeing the cleverness of all three hundred pages did I see the real achievement here. I did think he was a little misjudged, as opposed to what I’d read of his before, but ended up rating this one highly indeed. It stands as fact that after three books Chris Womersley knows his territory very well – that of either providing thrillers with a literary twist, or of providing dark, crime-based dramas of much scope and great appeal. I thought he was walking his own path through that minefield and seemed unaware of what lay around him – I should have known he had the right plan to follow all along.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

The author's first book – if second to reach these shores – was The Low Road.

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Buy Cairo by Chris Womersley at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Cairo by Chris Womersley at


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