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

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

#63: Knowing Max -- James Long

Miles grows up in the stifling atmosphere of a big house in Worthing, alienated by his mother and oppressed by his stepfather the Colonel. His escape route is via the speed trials at Brighton. One year, via a random act of kindness, he meets the beautiful Ginny, who lets him steer her car to the start line and urges him to come and seek her out next year. Miles does his utmost to keep the appointment, but it ends in tragedy.

Interwoven with the story of what happened to Ginny is the tale of Miles's increasing disaffection with his family. He falls in with a bad crowd, ends up in court ... by the time of the main narrative, he's living in London, concealing his privileged background and trading engine parts and Dinky toys: his current girlfriend, Cat, is a free-spirited hippie who treats Miles' possessions as her own, and is happy to share her vices with him.

One day Miles buys a trunk full of letters and photographs at auction, which turn out to have belonged to Max Birkin Owen. Max, by his own account, was a war hero, an intimate friend of post-abdication Edward Windsor, a keen racing-driver; a free spirit misunderstood by his brother and his sister-in-law. Max has adventures in post-war Europe, mixes with the rich and fabulous at Cannes, smuggles vintage cars disguised as tanks, conducts a long-distance affair with an American girl named Natalie ... Gradually, Miles -- increasingly ensnared by troubles of his own -- begins to piece together Max's life, and discovers that it's connected to his own, his parents', and even Ginny's.

There's a great deal in this novel about the power of memory, and the things that evoke it: about how stories are built up of layer after layer, and how the past reaches into and affects the present. In coming to know Max, Miles is also forced to 'know', to confront, the person he's become.

I'd have enjoyed this novel more if I'd liked any of the characters! The layering, and the unreliability not only of Max but of Miles as narrators, is masterful, and I'm struck by how different the various eras feel, from Fifties to Seventies, and back to Max's what-ho memoirs of the Thirties.

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