Magazine article The Spectator

Uncle with a Difference

Magazine article The Spectator

Uncle with a Difference

Article excerpt

THE EMIGRE by Joan Brady

Secker, 15.99, pp. 286 Joan Brady's third novel, The Emigre, tells the story of a flawed but fascinating musician, Nikolas Strakhan, as he cons his way across the globe from childhood to middle age. The story bears comparison with Bellow's Humboldt's Gift and Auster's Leviathan as it is related to us by an admiring but appalled associate of the protagonist whose strength of feeling for the great man serves also to fire the reader's imagination. Our narrator, however, is not a close friend and contemporary of the tragic artist, but a young woman, Eve Holland, whom we see gradually falling in love with the scoundrel whose tale she is telling.

Eve is in danger of settling for her humdrum boyfriend, Harry, when he takes her to meet his uncle Nikolas in Swiss Cottage. She is immediately beguiled by this mysterious but flamboyant trickster and finds herself yearning to learn more about his past. The opportunity arises when she travels to Illinois to meet Harry's parents, Canfield and Violette, and encounters his grandmother, Beatrice, who relates the sordid tale of Nikolas's past.

It is at this point that the novel becomes increasingly surreal. Brady cleverly plays with our understanding of truth as she subtly shifts narrational perspective. Is this Beatrice's story or Eve's? And to what extent has it been embellished by the needs and desires of these characters? Brady displays the human need for making myths out of life. At certain points the story becomes pure fairytale, far removed from the sober opening chapters, and Brady entertains us with some set pieces which beggar belief but deliver pure delight. And she has prepared us for this magical turn of events with the opening lines: Reality? What's so good about it? Where's the structure in it? Nobody wants it. Nobody buys it. Myth is better. I love myth. As Eve is told the story of Nikolas she is gradually seduced by him as her imagination and desire are fuelled by his exploits. …

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