Idiopathy by Sam Byers

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Idiopathy by Sam Byers

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: Shortlisted for the 2013 Costa First Book Award it's a book of skewering insight and savage satire. Byers is also an author to watch in the future.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Fourth Estate
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0007412082

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Katherine no longer seeks or expects to be happy. She's stuck in a place and a job she hates and her relationship with Daniel broke up over a year ago. Since then she's had sexual encounters with a few men but her motivations have been confusing and disturbing - not least to Katherine. She has a vicious wit (actually, calling it wit is perhaps stretching the point a little...) which repels the people she'd like to attract and attracts the people she'd prefer to repel. Daniel is with a new girlfriend (well, there was a slight overlap) but he's not certain that he loves Angelica. He's in a difficult situation: not telling her that he loves her becomes tantamount to telling her that he doesn't love her and as a result he has to tell her that he loves her just to keep on the level.

An idiopathy is a disease or condition which arises spontaneously with no known cause and in the book it's a disease which - all too believably - is attacking cattle, but forget about the cattle as this is a book about human relationships and the lengths to which we'll go to avoid facing up to their limitations. You sense in both Katherine and Daniel a regret that their relationship foundered but the reality was that for five years his insecurities were played off against her vicious tendencies, giving neither of them any happiness.

Matters come to a head when Nathan comes back into Katherine and Daniel's lives. It's Katherine he rings after a spell in psychiatric care and this puts her in contact with Daniel. The three arrange to meet. You know - and you sense that the three of them know - that this cannot turn out well.

It's scathing satire on human relationships with some brilliant riffs on arguments and militant environmentalism which had me rereading for the pleasure of being balanced between laughter and tears. The insight is razor sharp and I doubt that there will be many readers who don't feel that they've been skewered at one point or another. Nathan's mother has written a book about her experiences as his mother whilst he was at his lowest. It's very difficult not to snigger at some real misery memoirs which have appeared over the past decade or so. Nathan's mother is a relatively minor character but she comes off the page brilliantly, staying neatly on just the right side of caricature. My favourite target was self-help books - particularly the book aimed at getting you to put the book down and lead a life instead...

It is savagely funny and some of the writing is brilliant - a debut which is striking in the quality of this book and the promise which it holds for the future. I was perhaps a little disappointed by the way that the meeting between the three main protagonists seemed to slither away but it's a relatively minor quibble in a book which is character rather than plot driven and which is worth reading for the quality of the writing.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Idiopathy has been shortlisted for the 2013 Costa First Novel Award. We've also enjoyed Marriage Material by Sathnam Sanghera from that shortlist.

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Buy Idiopathy by Sam Byers at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Idiopathy by Sam Byers at


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