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!