Monday, 7 June 2010

A lost weekend leaves an unpleasant taste

The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

Chatto & Windus (HBK) £12.99 RRP

When Ian and Emily Goade receive a surprise invitation to spend the August bank holiday with old friends of Ian’s, in a remote country house, they’re sceptical about the motive. But in desperate need of a break themselves, they take up the offer.

Ian, who had known both Ollie and his partner Daisy at university, has always been caught in a fierce competition with Ollie, his more privileged friend: jealous yet adoring, resentful of his patronage yet besotted.

But as the weekend begins, amid chronic traffic and in sweltering heat, tensions start to bubble beneath the surface of all the relationships, and the subject of an old bet is raised.

An interesting take on country house mysteries, Blake Morrison’s themes are many, from the lies we tell to class tensions to male rivalry and competitiveness, we well as nods to Larkin's comment that your parents "fuck you up".

The denouement is pretty predictable – Morrison signposts it constantly – while Emily, together with Ollie, Daisy and their troubled teenage son Archie are all rather vaguely sketched types.

Indeed, you could take Ollie and Daisy's surname, the Moores, as representing the point that they have more of everything. And the Goades? Well, on one level, say it sounds like 'good' – and as a primary school teacher and social worker respectively, Ian and Emily can be viewed as 'good', by contrast with the Moore's less socially beneficial careers (he a successful, well-off lawyer, she with her own successful agency representing artists).

On another level, 'Goade' works as goading – a comment on Ian's behaviour.

Descriptions of the weather are well done, but are a fairly obvious indicator of trouble ahead.

What drives this beyond a rather unsubtle read is the central character of Ian, who narrates it.

Just how reliable a narrator is he?

In his development of Ian, Morrison seems to give more than a passing nod to the character of Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire: what is delusion and what is reality? What is fantasy and what is truth?

That central question is what gives this novel impetus and interest – in an increasingly horrific way.

I'd not read any Morrison before, but was asked to do this for review purposes, so did it easily in a weekend (which ended up feeling rather like a lost rather than last weekend). Like more than one of Nabokov's novels, it takes as its core a deeply unpleasant character and shows not so much a descent into madness, but provides a gradual revelation of just how deluded that character really is.

At doing that, Morrison is good. And The Last Weekend is easy to read and rocks along at a fair old pace. But the book as a whole lacks the subtlety, the wit and the downright fun of Nabokov. And the taste that it leaves is not one of having enjoyed a book in spite of the subject matter/character, as unsettling as that is (Lolita, for instance), but of not even being able to claim either enjoyment or elucidation.