No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, July 15, 2001

Bold as Love -- Gwyneth Jones [objective]

(See also my more subjective review of this book.)

Imagine a near-future England gently ravaged by flood, GM disasters and economic decline. The Home Secretary announces an initiative to get the kids involved in society (not to mention politics) by creating a 'counter-cultural thinktank' of the brighter stars of the indie rock scene. Maybe promoting politics as the new rock'n'roll will rouse England's youth from post-millennial apathy and rejuvenate England just as the Act of Dissolution - splitting the UK back into its component nations - comes into force. The rock stars will probably be too busy taking drugs and having sex to achieve anything significant, but they do seem to have influence ...

Fiorinda, brattishly independent teenaged daughter of a famous rock star, signs up for the think-tank by mistake while following someone who looks like her father. Skull-masked Aoxomoxoa (Sage to his friends) joins up to keep his friend Fio company. And Axl Preston, the political face of rock'n'roll even before this initiative, could hardly be excluded from such a gathering. To the surprise of many, though, it's not Ax whose political agenda provokes a bloody coup one night in December.

Fiorinda, Sage and Ax find themselves unnervingly close to the new centre of power. The England they live in is becoming stranger daily: by the end of this, the first of a series of novels, it's transformed to an almost medieval state.

That central triumvirate has evoked comparisons with the legend of Arthur: but this is no simple recounting, or recasting, of the archetypal British myth. It's a very English romance, though devoid of warm beer, cricket matches and old ladies cycling to church. The romance is not limited to a traditional love story, whether heterosexual or otherwise. Bold as Love is as much a love letter to the festival counterculture as it's an examination of the relationship between any two individuals.

Jones' future England is deftly drawn, with minutiae that are more convincing than any infodump in portraying the demographic and social changes between Now and Then. The climate's growing cooler, not warmer: the Royal Family have fled the country: Wonderwall is still a classic rock anthem.

We see the transformations wreaked upon the post-Dissolution remnants of the United Kingdom through the mildly distorting lens of Fiorinda’s alienation. 'This is not my world' is her refrain, but she could easily be a new Britannia, or an English Marianne, for a newly-independent, forcibly isolated England. Sage and Ax, charismatic but not entirely reliable heroes, struggle to hold things together through a sequence of revelations and catastrophes that emphasises the immutable frailty, cruelty and fallibility of humankind within this altered England.

Jones portrays these interesting times with an unfailing, occasionally grim attention to psychological and social detail. Bold as Love is not the frivolous romp that its subject matter - the Rock'n'Roll Reich - might suggest. That doesn't mean, though, that the bold new world painted here is unremittingly bleak. Welsh technology is quietly evolving solutions to problems that haven't yet begun to bite. The music scene is healthier than ever (and Gwyneth Jones resists the temptation to describe future gigs in tedious detail).

Whether or not you buy into the politics of the revolution - Bold as Love could be read as a Party Political Broadcast on behalf of the counterculture - the focus of the novel is personal rather than political. Sage, Ax and Fiorinda are likeable, flawed individuals who strike sparks off one another as the tangled relationships between them evolve and mutate. There’s an exuberance about these three, even in their darkest moments, that is appealingly infectious. I’m looking forward immensely to encountering them again in the next volume, Castles Made of Sand.

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