The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: While this is just fun when the blurb says it's funny, this debut novel will have the power and readability to stay in the mind a mighty long time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 192 Date: April 2017
Publisher: Pushkin Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781782273325

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Meet Josephine. Married to Joseph Jones, she has kept her maiden name to keep at least some character to her identity. As opposed to her new boss, who has no gender, no face, and horrid halitosis. The job Josephine is forced to choose is a simple one, of taking a file's paper contents, clicking up the subject on a huge database, entering a date newly printed on the sheet, and repeating. Told to obey strict secrecy rules, she starts to find unusual signs of malignance all over – a man in a grey sweatshirt following her, post redirected when nobody knows where Josephine and Joseph are even living from one month to the next, and a husband missing from the marital bed more and more often… Is there a way for her find a spark of happiness in the humdrum, windowless cell she works, and the horrid housing that is all the couple can afford?

I really quite liked this novel, and so did many others judging by the effusive quotes and blurbs given by the author's fellow wordsmiths. For a get-go I like anything with the tinge of the Kafkaesque about it, and it's quite pointed that Joseph(ine) is only one letter away from all his 'K's. There is the touch of Kafka (and David Lynch perhaps) in the ugly walls of her office, the constant thrum of typewriters in her department, the fact half the floors are inaccessible to her, and that you're forced to eat at your desk, by circumstance just as much as by rules.

But that's not to say this has much in common with writing that feels a hundred years old. This is very fresh, and from the awkward evenings in diner booths to the colleague who's swallowed the Legally Blonde guide to couture, there is a lot that is bright, recognisable and definitely up to date. Added to that, you get the full gist of the story revealed to you in perfectly timed manner, and while it is of course more than my job's worth to say what that is, I have to file this as being a love child of Kafka and Mitch Albom. From one you get the restriction we all recognise from work, and from the other you find an uncanny positivity, a sense that the world has found its correct pattern. And from both you get an inherent readability.

Yes, I was initially thinking of giving this book four stars – nothing to be sniffed at, and that seemed the right response when finishing it. But I think it's worth more. There is a lot here to stick in your mind, however you visualise the goings-on and characters. It's definitely a clever read too – even the one thing about it I was regretting, a style the narrative has of playing with words, making up its own anagrams and corruptions of phrases, in the middle third – is there for a reason. Yes, some times pretention creeps in (I'm looking at a certain page late on in chapter 11), but this is generally sparkling writing. The chapters are very short, averaging four sides at times, and things speed by, forming a most memorable visual image of the whole scenario. There's a high proportion of this work that will stay with you, and for that I have to recommend it quite strongly.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai features an equally quirky and memorable read, where a hero has to undergo the unusual to find an ideal world. Us Bookbaggers who have seen it so far have agreed to disagree as regards its merits.

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Buy The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips at


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