By ALLAN MASSIE
RISK is an elegant and assured novel. It is a pleasure to read a writer who know just what he is doing and how to do it. It is written with agreeable economy, welcome at a time when so many acclaimed novels are fat baggy monsters. CK Stead is a poet as well as a novelist, but there is, happily, nothing poetic about his prose.
Maclehose, 267pp, £16.99
Sam Nola is a New Zealander of Croatian extraction. A lawyer by profession, he finds himself a divorced man in the middle of his journey through life. It is 2002 and he moves to London where he lived for a couple of years in his youth after taking his degree at Oxford. He has a new life to fashion at a time when the world is in turmoil, 9/11 fresh in everyone’s memory, and planning, or plotting, for the Iraq war already underway.
Throughout, the private and public concerns play off each other, and, with the exception of one questionable passage, Stead does this deftly and persuasively. When there are conversations, or rather arguments, about the morality and wisdom of the war, they are brought in naturally; there is no sense of them being dragged in to make a point, even though the author disapproves very strongly of the American-British policy.
Sam gets himself a job in the legal department of an American bank in London. He seems to do so quite easily, but this is acceptable in a novel. Anyway he is clearly capable of doing the work, even though like most of us – and indeed some of his senior colleagues – he doesn‘t really understand the mysteries of derivatives and such like. Puzzled though he is, he is happy to profit and his annual bonuses in the heyday of casino capitalism make him agreeably rich for the first time in his life. He is also astute enough to realise that if something seems too good to last, it probably is just that, but a senior colleague to whom he voices his doubts waves them away.
He renews old friendships and makes some new ones. More happily still, he is approached by a French student who says she is his daughter. Indeed she is, the child of an affair he had as a young man in London, his lover returning to France before she realised she was pregnant and then marrying the man her parents had intended her for.
In fact, despite the failure of his own marriage, it is clear that, in personal relations, Sam is generally fortunate. He is on good terms with his sons in New Zealand, the new daughter is delightful – and there will be pleasant holidays in France – and in the course of the novel he will remember one affair on a brief visit years before to Croatia, have an affair with a rich woman which may lead to marriage, and an enjoyable romp with a work colleague on a visit to New York. Lucky Sam, one may say.
Private life can proceed harmoniously even as public affairs go bad. Sam is, however, more fortunate than others. Disagreements about Iraq come close to breaking marriages. One work colleague, a banker who writes poems, and thinks of himself as a poet, though his poems are rarely accepted by magazines, is caught up in the horror of the London bombings. Sam is furious to find Tony Blair denying the obvious connection between this outrage and his complicity in the Iraq war. Hostility to Blair, even contempt for him, run through the novel, provoking that one questionable passage: a conversation between Blair and Alastair Campbell, who has just received the news of Dr David Kelly’s suicide. The conversation is well done, but I am not sure that it should have been done. On the other hand Sam’s indignant response to Colin Powell’s speech at the UN is justifiable, because the fictional character is the observer of the real-life event.
Stead handles the financial crash and Sam’s reaction to it well, but there is one odd and ethically dubious aspect to his treatment of it. Clearly he disapproves of the reckless speculation and the contemptuous cry that after all it’s OPM – Other People’s Money – that is at risk. Yet one character who is presented sympathetically comes out of the crash on top by successfully engaging in “shorting”. This is cleverer than buying packages of dubiously loans, but is it ethical?
It is always easier for the reviewer to discuss the themes of a book. Yet so much of the pleasure of reading a novel are in the detail – the observed or imagined detail, and in the author’s ability to capture particular moments and the trick and rhythm of daily life. Stead does this exquisitely. There are moments which have nothing to do with the plot – Sam’s observation of an office on the other side of the road and his speculation about the relations between the people who work there, for example – but which allow us to experience one of the rewards of a good novel; catching glimpses of the reality of other people’s lives.
Distributed in ANZ by Pan MacMillan.