The Cocaine Salesman by Conny Braam

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The Cocaine Salesman by Conny Braam

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A lengthy but absorbing look at a sympathetic drug dealer.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 450 Date: November 2011
Publisher: Haus Publishing
ISBN: 978-1907822056

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Picture a world of hellish exclusion, nightmarish noise and images, and horrid violence. Picture one person trying to live through the sleepless nights, the isolation among his peers, the permanent sense of dreadful threat. Picture him needing drugs. His best friend might even be called Charlie. But don't picture an inner city slum, 2012, but a man on the front in World War One.

Robin Ryder is that person, about to enter his first real action since leaving his teaching job and fiancee behind in Great Yarmouth. Afterwards he will be so physically and mentally scarred he will be one of many hundreds of thousands given cocaine by his doctors. And where do they get that from? From a legal, virtual monopoly controlled from Holland. Hence the main character in this historical-book-you-wouldn't-suspect-from-the-title, Lucien Hirschland, who is a travelling salesman for one Dutch factory, whose bosses are providing both sides in the great war through Dutch neutrality.

It's a relief that Conny Braam has uncovered this historical detail and filled in all the gaps in her fiction. She succeeds in not just opening our eyes to an unexpected part of that war's history, and hence our medicinal heritage, but in providing literature with one of a select band, that of sympathetic drug dealers. Used to huge, sweeping deals that earn him a brand new Harley Davidson with little investment, his hubris is evident, but only one side of his well-formed character. And the book is certainly not just his story, as Ryder is similarly very strongly written.

It's not a perfect book. It's too long (certainly too long for the proof-reader they employed, who lets far too many typos in, and lets us learn Kent is south-west of London). But the time investment involved actually allows Braam to iron out some of the deficiencies. It took me a long time, certainly, to work out what worth Lucien's sister's friends had to offer. One clunky encounter turns out to be something much more interesting.

Out of all though, I think the most surprising thing about this book is that it was written by a female. This Conny is a Dutch Lady of Letters, and clearly shows more of her work could be brought to the English language market. In this translation at least it seems a particularly masculine novel, in style, content and detail. Yet it also allows a very general interest, in the way of historical sagas. Oddly she seems to drop at the midway point any reference to the season or weather, and when she provides such an immersive, saga-type style, that becomes noticeable in its absence.

Proof then that while there is room for improvement, the novelty of this circumstance, the characters and the strong form of the author make this a book to definitely consider. I wish it a large audience.

The non-fiction to turn to for the years immediately post-war, which this novel covers, is The Great Silence: 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War by Juliet Nicolson.

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