A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man by Andrew McGuinness

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A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man by Andrew McGuinness

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A man on remand for murder by firestarting confesses all (and more) in this distinctive narrative. If you can enjoy the character and his approach the book is good fun, but remains in need of a red pen at times.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 300 Date: September 2008
Publisher: Bluechrome Publishing
ISBN: 978-1906061500

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Kent, the modern day. A young wannabe writer, Ben Tippet, is disappointed to not be published through winning a short story competition, so torches the relevant offices. He also, unwittingly, kills a cleaner working there late at night. What we read in this first-person confessional novel is the outpourings he puts to paper, longhand, in ten hour or longer stints from his remand cell.

Our main character, concerned as he is by narrative, writing and the creation of fictional styles and worlds, is therefore responsible for all the narrative and style of this book. And in bringing it to the fore he also forces me to respond. You will certainly notice the style in the first few pages – the blunt, rough and ready way the narrator is dealing with things, and his often reverting, to us and to others, to lies. He regularly interrupts, countermands or contradicts himself in bracketed asides, and is not averse to sign-posting pages, extracts and summaries as avoidable and not vital to the plot.

However there is a sense that when the slapdash, first-draft approach to his autobiography (featuring as it does the unusual – a lost and late older brother, a transsexual relative – and the regular – although his childhood invisible friend only turns up at the midway point) hits something else that the story becomes a lot more closer to general fiction.

This might be me attuning to Ben's voice, but I don't think so. I think that long before the midway crux points, the story has settled down to a much more regular plot and phrasing. I don't want to accuse our real writer, Andrew McGuinness, with a failure to sustain his singular approach, I want to credit him with turning the book into something else, which perhaps needs the slightly more familiar for its well-defined later impact. Ben has had to alter as he spends time awaiting his trial, and the knife-edge verdict he might or might not welcome, and he clearly prefers reporting some parts of the relevant drama more than others.

These include a quick and nearly meaningless affair with his female writing teacher, and a more substantial relationship with a male thriller writer, Alex Fortune. One has to welcome the depth to the confessional herein (and it is a fairly dense read, but not oppressively so), take on board the blokey, spunky voice of Tippet, and accept the bisexuality of the protagonist to enjoy the book.

Taken that as read, is the book completely enjoyable? Well, in parts, certainly. The climax of the Alex Fortune narrative is quite lyrical, and a complete contrast to the initial outbursts of Ben. However elsewhere the parentheses that cite the writing as something too waffly, a bit clichéd and not ideal, are only met with the reader nodding. The book is at least fifty pages too long.

I also furrow a brow at the mix of very recognisable Kentish features, with the artificial cathedral town of Pensbury. I'm very glad at the same time that Andrew McGuinness didn't call his hero Andrew McGuinness, and pretend this had a hundred percent veracity, but the way we are asked to become complicit in the reality of this story is lost at times.

Still, I found the distinctive voice of Ben/Andrew one I could easily engage with, however removed from my reality such an individual might be (and he's not the most likeable person ever put on paper). The ragged edges to the style were ones I could easily live with, just as I could the smoother, more polished parts of the scenario with meatier plot points to be put across. My only regrets are the slight lapses from the strict 'this is me, and this is how it and I happened' authority, and more importantly the longueurs taking too long to bypass.

With a further edge to the bite, in such things as the 'why we write' musings, this book would sail to four Bookbag stars and perhaps beyond. At the heart of it are a distinct (if not succinct) character, and a very enjoyable plot with still enough to its merit to deserve at least a guarded recommendation.

We would like to thank Bluechrome for sending us a review copy.

Buy A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man by Andrew McGuinness at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man by Andrew McGuinness at Amazon.co.uk


Buy A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man by Andrew McGuinness at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man by Andrew McGuinness at Amazon.com.

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