The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis

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The Late Hector Kipling by David Thewlis

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Paul Harrop
Reviewed by Paul Harrop
Summary: Painter Hector Kipling has it all, then loses it all, in a darkly farcical spiral of madness, sofas and death, lots of death.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 200 Date: September 2007
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-0330373364

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'Some sort of drunken collaboration between Feydeau and Dante'. That's how Hector Kipling describes his life at one stage in his narrative. It is an accurate, if overly self-conscious, summary of the flavour of this novel: a blackly comic, farcical descent into a personal hell.

Actor David Thewlis is better known for his acclaimed film career, ranging from the immensely popular Harry Potter franchise through to the more experimental Mike Leigh. No doubt the improvisatory techniques of the latter's work were valuable experience for the characterisation and dialogue of this, Thewlis's first novel.

It's the story of successful artist Kipling. Unlike most of his peers, he actually paints - heads on huge canvases. As such, he doesn't court outrage, critical favour or create installations like his more eminent best friend Lenny Snook. It sets him apart from some of the other enfants terribles such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin or Gilbert and George who are name-dropped, or who even appear, in the book.

Despite this, Hector has income and acclaim enough, and an attractive girlfriend whom he loves. But following a freak encounter between his masterwork and a motorbike, and the fallout from a misguided and notorious painting of a hanged former tenant of his flat, his life starts to unravel.

The ensuing story is a thickly-layered impasto of death, injury, illness, sofas, insanity and more death. It all takes place against the backdrop of professional rivalry in the incestuous London art scene at the end of the millennium. Thewlis is obviously familiar with those artists and their creations; his mockery of their excesses is affectionate rather than satirical.

Thus he gives us descriptions of limousines filled with blood, baths filled with paint, and even Lenny's motorised coffin and pram chasing each other round a gallery. As Hector's world collapses he inserts grimly amusing 'ideas for pieces' which simultaneously lampoon conceptual art and his own predicament.

The dialogue is convincing thanks to the actor's ear for speech. Kipling's personality and its gradual disintegration are also believable, even if most of the other characters - with the possible exception of Hector's mother - are little more than ciphers.

Nevertheless, Thewlis is sharp and honest on blokeish relationships, male sexuality, vanity and emotional blankness. Many male readers will sympathise with Hector even as they cringe at his more ill-judged decisions.

The first-person narrative incorporates dreams, musings, surreal imaginings and comic asides. It's an old trick, but I laughed most when Hector's personal life seems to have reached a chaotic nadir. As his recently-bereaved girlfriend vomits after discovering his affair with a sado-masochistic poet, Hector too throws up over her back. 'It's all going very well,' he writes.

That scene encapsulates the visceral flavour and sardonic tone of the novel. Its content and language are not for the faint-hearted. Its violent climax is as grotesque as it is skilfully revealed. But anyone who prefers the Mike Leigh to the Harry Potter aspect of Thewlis's career, or who appreciates the work of the Young British Artists, will find much to enjoy here.

Its contemporary references have been blunted by the passing of time (Thewlis wrote the book seven years ago). The plot lacks the satisfying shape which a more experienced novelist might have wrought. But it is nevertheless an impressive debut, fluidly written, perceptive, vivid and gripping.

For another example of a performer turned novelist (who also appears in The Late Hector Kipling) you could try David Baddiel's Whatever Love Means.

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