The Mayor's Tongue by Nathaniel Rich

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The Mayor's Tongue by Nathaniel Rich

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A bizarre patchwork quilt of characters and stories that gradually form a saga of the search for love and esteem in the world of novels. It can be quite garish and patchy – many will find comfort in a favourite blanket instead.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 320 Date: January 2010
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-0099526520

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Eugene, after spending some time as a menial worker, is happy to fall into the orbit of an ageing biographer, whose lifelong task is a work about the favourite author they have in common, Constance Eakins. The old man's collection of Eakins is something to covet – and his daughter isn't bad, either. It's just that Eakins is something of an enigma – is he alive, in the remote hills above Trieste, northern Italy, or is he long since dead? While no-one can sort that out, said daughter can at least go looking.

Elsewhere, in the same city, two ageing men suffer a break in their long-standing friendship, as one leaves for, yes, you guessed it, northern Italy. The one left behind is more than unhappy to see the closure of such a relationship.

And by the time Eugene ups sticks and chases after the girl with duty and love under his wings, we're seeing cyclical patterns everywhere.

We are also, due to the nature of this book, seeing an awful lot of detail about stories, biography, story-telling, lies and more. Before Eugene can get the biographical job we see him writing a book based on his friend and colleague's novel draft, which is in a language Eugene cannot really understand at all. We get a story inside a story – the living arrangements of the pair, and details inside the detail – what it's like when one brings a girl home – that have practically no bearing on the bigger picture.

Such things are done with whimsy, and at times a charming approach to character and circumstance. But on the whole the delving into the minutiae of the worlds of these people does seem to disguise the fact that said bigger picture is some way shy of being a masterpiece. There is some cleverness at hand in the way the characters tie themselves together – the same fountain shared in their reportage, the same distant mountain hut coming to feature more than once – but here the opinion of this book will be split. Will it all seem arch and clever-clever, or just right? To me, actually, I felt there was too little of this, and instead a reliance on too many of the sub-stories.

It all wraps up into a slightly bizarre adventure, with high literature stylings for what is on the whole a quest story taking young men and their girls into an alien landscape. It's noticeable upon finishing just how far into the plot the cover blurb takes the browser.

There is a very real sense of enjoyable characters here, from the two older men to the saga of Eugene and the secondary people that are there to mirror or contrast his narrative. There is also a great sense of a reader being played with by an author trying to divert and diversify a bit too much. Why haven't I named the girl involved? Because for different people in the book she has one of six different names. It's this sense of larky unreliability that will remain with the reader a long time, if anything, and this jolly, irreverent look at narrative form that is the brightest aspect of this book that offered several flashes of fine writing and fun invention, yet remained too far off-kilter in too many ways too long for me to give it a universal recommendation.

The ending is spot on, and makes for a lovely wrap-up, but for the moment Rich is not quite able to wield the power he gives Eakins.

We would like to thank Chatto and Windus for our review copy.

For another book with a little larky unreliablity we can recommend Wild Oats by Michael Edwards.

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