Glow by Ned Beauman

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Glow by Ned Beauman

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Rebecca Foster
Reviewed by Rebecca Foster
Summary: An insomniac gets drawn into south London's criminal underworld in search of the origins of a new Ecstasy-like drug. What might it have to do with his neighbourhood's sudden profusion of Burmese people – and hyper-intelligent foxes?
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 258 Date: May 2014
Publisher: Sceptre
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781444765519

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Ned Beauman has made quite a name for himself in just a few short years. In 2013, when Granta lauded him as one of their Best Young British Novelists, he had already published two novels, Boxer, Beetle (shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize) in 2010 and The Teleportation Accident (longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) in 2012.

Now at the ripe old age of 28, he's releasing his third novel, Glow. Unlike his previous works of sprawling anti-historical fiction, this one mostly sticks to a limited time and place: south London over the course of 15 days in 2010. Unfortunately, this means it does not quite have the scope, randomness, or madcap brilliance of the other two.

Protagonist Raf has a peculiar disorder called non-24-hour sleep/wake syndrome; his body is on a 25-hour cycle, which means that he constantly feels just slightly off. He does a bit of freelance graphic design and programming, but his only other gig is walking Rose, the guard Staffie at his friend Isaac's radio station.

The novel opens at a rave in a laundrette, where Raf first meets an alluring Burmese-American named Cherish. Isaac has heard of a new pharmaceutical called 'glow' that replicates the high of Ecstasy and gets hold of some samples for them, but Raf leaves that night without trying the drug – or getting Cherish's number. On the upper storey of the bus back home, he sees a fox sitting on the seat opposite him; at Camberwell Green it gets up and trots off.

Things only get stranger. White vans that make no sound are abducting people; Raf's neighbourhood gets a sudden infusion of Burmese foodstuffs and radio shows; and online message boards are abuzz with the chemistry and derivation of glow. The plot becomes increasingly complicated – and downright kooky in places – as Raf continues his amateur investigations into Lacebark, a mining company involved in dodgy dealings in Burma. Cherish may or may not be their (double) agent. And those London foxes seem worryingly intelligent; are they chemically altered too?

This is Beauman's most contemporary story, after the bizarre World War II time-travelling of his first two novels, and in some ways Glow is refreshingly hip. The chemistry of drugs is a theme that surely capitalizes on the success of American TV hit Breaking Bad, and the novel's jaded tone and breakneck pace are also reminiscent of last year's creepy Channel 4 thriller, Utopia. Like Beauman's other novels, this one focusses on the unlikely adventures of an endearing anti-hero, and manages a few moments of sweetness despite the fairly filthy sexual content. But at the same time, it lacks the other two's pure zaniness, and fails to provide any laugh-out-loud moments.

I appreciated Glow mostly as a hymn to the hidden charms of Beauman's native south London. There is an unexpected beauty in some of his descriptive language: 'Graupels of crushed styrofoam packaging skitter across the pavement' and 'The sooty scabs of chewing gum and the sycamore seeds trapped in pigeon shit make every paving stone in London look like an unlabelled map of some distant volcanic archipelago.' If I do not generally respond with such rapture to the everyday sights of suburban/industrial London, surely that is a mark of my own prejudiced ignorance. Raf concludes he would 'rather live in south London than anywhere else in the world,' and I suspect Beauman feels the same.

Beauman also has a knack for surprisingly apt metaphors: he likens the moon to a 'silver pill half dissolved on the tongue of the night' and remarks that Raf 'fell into the bed like a corpse into a gulch'. His pseudo-philosophical musings, in the voice of Raf, can be amusingly high-flown – 'What he hates about whisky hangovers, he thinks now, is the synthesis they achieve between the spiritual and the gastric'. Only occasionally does the vocabulary seem a little forced, too consciously up-to-the-minute, as in 'Rose dozes at his feet like a small black hole on loan from a particle accelerator'.

If you like your novels gritty and current, à la Irvine Welsh or Will Self, you should find this one a quick and enjoyable read.

Further reading suggestion:' To experience this talented young author at his best, read The Teleportation Accident.

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