Book review, Legend Press, London, Publisher, Setting, William Thacker

‘Charm Offensive’ by William Thacker


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.

Black comedy

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].
‘Bevan House.’
‘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.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Fiction, literary fiction, Ma Jian, Vintage

‘Beijing Coma’ by Ma Jian


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 666 pages; 2009. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

It’s been a very long time since I read a novel that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Ma Jian’s Beijing Coma is by no means a perfect book — it’s far too lengthy for a start and the lead character is arrogant and annoying by turns — but it is a powerful, compelling read, a story that bears witness to a shocking event that the Chinese authorities would rather you did not know about: the Tianamen Square massacre of 1989.

Although the book is fictional, it is based on first-hand experience and, from what I can gather having now read this wikipedia entry, is historically accurate. Only the names have been changed.

Beijing Coma remains banned in China, along with everything else that Ma Jian has written. (He now lives in London with his translator wife, Flora Drew.)

At more than 600-pages long, it requires a major commitment from the reader, but it is worth the effort. It is a deeply moving account of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement, culminating in the massacre in which thousands of Chinese citizens were killed. Unusually, it is told from the point of view of one of the students, Dai Wei, who is in a coma. As a concept, this shouldn’t work. But in Ma Jian’s hands this wholly original approach is devastatingly effective.

As Dai Wei lays in a bed in his mother’s apartment waiting to die — he was felled by a bullet during the military crackdown — he takes in everything happening around him. Much of the time he reminisces about his past, and through this we learn of his childhood growing up in 1980s Communist China, where his father was labelled a “rightist” and sentenced to 20 years in a prison farm, and his mother was a fine, upstanding citizen who toed the Party line.

Later, he escapes the claustrophobia of the family home to attend university, where he spends more time chasing girls than studying. He eventually gets swept up in the idealism of the pro-democracy movement and finds himself head of security during the protests which begin in April 1989.

He recalls the student movement’s slow disintegration, as boisterous enthusiasm and idealism makes way for in-fighting, internal power struggles and corruption all because it lacked a truly united front.

But Dai Wei’s memories of the past are constantly interrupted by events happening around him in his mother’s cramped and shabby apartment. Because he was injured during a massacre that the Government denies ever happened, he is not allowed medical treatment. It is up to his mother, as sole carer, to do what she can to help him: she gets drugs and IV equipment on the black market, and occasionally has documents forged to allow him to be treated in hospital. It is a perilous, on-the-edge and inhumane existence for both parties.

His mother is anxious for her son to die to relieve her of this terrible burden — and she makes no bones about telling him this, not knowing that despite Dai Wei’s vegetative state he can hear everything she says.

At times the narrative feels like a dark comedy (there’s one instance when Dai Wei’s urine is seen as a miracle cure and people come from far and wide to buy it from his mother’s apartment), but for the most part it is a damning indictment of China’s human rights record.

It is also a fascinating insight into the massive economic and physical changes that Beijing underwent between 1989 and the 2008 Olympic Games, as old buildings were torn down to make way for modern ones, and local residents took advantage of new investment.

But for Dai Wei’s mother this change is not welcome. As she juggles her son’s medical needs with her own struggle to survive, she is ordered by the Government to leave her apartment so that it can be demolished to make way for new buildings as part of the Beijing Olympic bid. Her refusal to move, to succumb to the Government’s demands, not only shows how much her attitude to the Government has changed (she was once a model Communist citizen), it provides a glimpse of a country thundering ahead so fast that only the fittest, strongest and most adaptable can survive.

These dual narratives are interleaved in a seamless fashion, so that only the tense — past for Dei Wei’s memories, present for events happening around his sick bed — orientates the reader.

A word of caution, however: the level of detail in this novel may be off-putting to some, because Ma Jian records the minutiae of student life and every tiny step of the protest movement. I admit that I did, at times, wonder if it was worth me ploughing ahead. I’m pleased that I persisted, because the sheer weight of the information presented builds momentum. By the time you reach the horrifying climax — the tanks rolling in and the soldiers mowing down innocent bystanders — it’s like being hit over the head by a tonne of bricks, as the full force of all that detail rains down on you. It is, without a doubt, one of the most dramatic endings to a novel I’ve ever read.

Beijing Coma held my attention for an entire month. It is a brave and audacious book, brimming with idealism, chaos and horror. If you like your fiction rooted in fact, with a choppy, fast-paced narrative, and a conclusion that leaves you reeling, then do add this one to the list.