Fiction – Kindle edition; Legend Press; 256 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
William Thacker’s debut novel, Charm Offensive, is about a fallen left-wing British politician trying to redeem himself after several years in the wilderness. It is set in London in the months prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
When the book opens we meet Joe Street, a retired Labour Party MP, whose name has been dragged through the papers once again. The media had previously ruined his career when his affair with Margaret Eccles, a Conservative Party politician — the Shadow Home Secretary at the time — was publicised in 1999. He was forced to resign as education secretary, and now, several years later, the papers are claiming that he has disowned their “love child” — a disabled girl called Helen.
Joe denies any knowledge of the girl and has called in his spin doctor, Barry, to make the story go away.
Charm Offensive is part comedy, part morality tale. It features some humorous set pieces — particularly between the conniving Barry and the hapless Joe as they plan how to clear his name — but the story is largely a poignant one as Joe grapples with a series of different personal issues, including re-establishing contact with his estranged adult daughter, Rosalind, an artist in the throes of breaking up with her husband.
When Joe hits upon the idea of transforming Rosalind’s home into a guest house, a kind of commune and artists’ co-operative, where the homeless can work and find shelter and paying guests can come to stay, he realises this might be the very thing that proves he still has a shred of respectability — he had, after all, built his political reputation on helping the less fortunate.
And he knows just the person to help with the task: a young chap called George, who has recently set up a homeless shelter in Hammersmith, funded by his father, which has received a lot of positive press.
‘What would you call it?’ [asks Rosalind].
‘After Nye Bevan.’
‘He founded the National Health Service.’
‘Bevan Breakfast,’ Rosalind says.
Rebuilding his reputation
In terms of plot, there’s not much more to the story than following the ups and downs of setting up the commune and seeing whether it will, in fact, help Joe reinvent himself in the eyes of the public — and the press.
The strength of the novel, which is written in beautifully restrained pared back prose, is the characterisation. Joe is not your average politician — he’s clearly flawed, heartbroken (he hasn’t seen his wife, Muriel, in months and she refuses to speak to him on the phone) and a bit lost. I also suspect he’s clinically depressed — he locks himself away in his bedroom at the top of the house, goes days without bathing, sleeps an inordinate amount of time away — and clearly in need of some moral support that goes beyond just keeping his name out of the papers.
Occasionally, the pace is a bit slow — I found some of the bits about Bevan Breakfast a little overworked — and some of the journalistic details off-key (a journalist would never reveal his or her source, for instance), but on the whole Charm Offensive is a thoughtful, sincere and witty tale about one man’s quest for redemption.