‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee


Fiction – hardcover; Harvill Secker; 320 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Into the canon of comedic novels about journalism comes Annalena McAfee’s delightfully fun and adroit The Spoiler.

This highly accomplished debut novel, set in 1997, tells the story of two female journalists who are poles apart in age, experience and outlook. Honor Tait is a highly regarded veteran war correspondent whose career in journalism has drawn to a close. Tamara Sim is young and tenacious, struggling to make a name for herself in an industry that is on the verge of drastic change. One comes from posh stock, the other has working-class origins.

The two women meet when Tamara is sent to interview Honor for Zeitgeist, a highbrow glossy magazine supplement, in what could be a terrific break for the younger journalist. But the interview in Honor’s Gothic red-brick mansion flat, to help promote Honor’s newly published book, Dispatches from a Dark Place: The Collected Honor Tait, does not go according to plan.

First, Tamara is late. Second, she brings a peace-offering — a big bouquet of lilies — which only inflames her interviewee, who hates flowers. Third, she gets lumbered with a second-rate photographer, who is patronising and sullen. And fourth, Tamara is slightly ill prepared — she hasn’t yet found the time to read Honor’s book so has to feign knowledge about it.

From thereon in the interview goes down hill, with Honor acting impatient and occasionally rude (“I hope you don’t think you’re an artist too, dear. There’s nothing more absurd than a reporter who thinks she’s an artist”), while Tamara does her utmost to act professional (“She had come here to get a story, to advance her career, not to make a friend”).

But throwing these two women in a room together is ripe for comedy as one misunderstanding follows another. It is, effectively, the generation gap writ large, as Tamara’s education fails to enlighten her on all manner of subjects, as this exchange demonstrates:

‘A voice recorder and a notebook?’ Honor asked, arching her sparse eyebrows at the tiny machine. […]
‘Belt and braces. If one fails, the other won’t let me down,’ Tamara said.
Honor leaned towards her, as if about to share a confidence.
‘Very wise, dear,’ she said. ‘It would be disastrous if one of your stories were to be lost to the reading public. Like Alexandria’s Library all over again.’ […]
‘Yes, I suppose so,’ she said, with a light laugh intended to suggest that she got the joke but was generous enough to let it pass. In her notebook she wrote: Chk: who is Alexandria? What happened to her library?

The basic plot of The Spoiler revolves around Tamara trying to write the best feature she possibly can on Honor, while Honor tries her best to avoid the possibility of Tamara digging up any dirt on her. As you might have guessed, both women, and particularly Honor, are not all that they might seem.

Without giving away crucial plot spoilers, Tamara might write celebrity gossip, but she works for a pittance and is continually trying to help out her drug-addicted brother whom she loves very much. She gives away her heart too easily (she has an affair with a colleague that hurts her deeply), but is desperate to make her career a success.

Meanwhile Honor, who is regarded as the “doyenne of British journalism”, is not the saint everyone thinks she is. While she’s covered everything from the Nazi death camps to the Korean war, hung out with the Hollywood elite and campaigned for all kinds of good causes, she has a reputation for sleeping around (“three husbands read thirty lovers, at least”) and rumour has it that she (still) prefers much younger men. But is this merely gossip, or does Honor have a secret private life that would ruin her should it be exposed by the press? And what lengths will Tamara go to in search of a good story?

The crux of this comes towards the end of the novel, which means you have to wade through a lot of other stuff first, namely McAfee’s insights into the shifting world of journalistic practices and ethics at the end of the 1990s (“This internet business is just a fad, bound for obsolence. It’s the hot-air gramophone and the Sinclair C5 all over again. They’ll never make money with it long term”), and subsidiary narrative threads about Tamara’s personal life.

But as a whole the story holds together very well, and the little twists make it an entertaining read. The denouement is a particularly good and surprising one.

I particularly loved the humour in this novel and laughed out loud a lot. And many of the descriptions, of people, of places, of situations and predicaments are vivid and well drawn. I was particularly taken with this simple sentence, near the start of the novel:

Tamara watched as the lights went on, a window at a time, in the building opposite, turning it into an illuminated Advent calendar of domestic interiors.

The Spoiler is a rather witty satire on the world of journalism, and the comparisons to Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop and Michael Frayn’s Towards the End of the Morning are appropriate — with one tiny exception: it’s lovely to have females in the lead roles for a change!

12 thoughts on “‘The Spoiler’ by Annalena McAfee

  1. According to the dustjacket on my copy, McAfee “worked in newspapers for more than three decades. She was Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times and founded the Guardian Review, which she edited for six years”.


  2. Thanks, Claire. It’s a great read. I actually read it back in early April, so when I sat down to write the review yesterday I had to re-read large parts to refresh my memory (I don’t take notes). I could easily have sat down and read the whole thing from cover to cover once again, it was such an entertaining read.


  3. I was reading down and think this is a female scoopish novel ,Imagine as a journalist this appeals to you a lot it sounds good ,not sure on the cover makes it look a little like a true life book ,all the best stu


  4. Yes, this was a fun read, but I don’t think you necessarily need to be a journalist or work in the media to appreciate. Everyone’s a media consumer, so they’ll “get” this book too.
    I understand what you mean about the cover, but I quite like it… it uses a lot of newspaper design elements, right down to the CMYK colour print blocks along the margin, so quite clever.


  5. Sadly, I don’t know the US publication date, but you could always order it from the Book Depository (free, worldwide shipping). A Kindle version is also available.


  6. How come I havent commented on this one as it sounds so up my street. (I have just come here from Kevin from Canada’s review and thought I had already commented on yours, oops!) Its another one I am going to have to get my mitts on.
    I must read Scoop in the meantime.


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