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

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

2010/61: Losing Larry -- Elizabeth Pewsey

Meanwhile, Jennifer Brown has been arrested for taking drugs at a rock and roll club and is in the Tower waiting for the police to do her over. Ronald Brown, the son, has been beaten again, I'm not sure what for, but the class suspect an older boy has been corrupting him into the English vice, as they call it. Mrs Brown is still concerned about conditions at the local factory ... It's such a farrago of nonsense, what they make up, but having invented it, they're quite ready to believe it's how life in England actually is. (p. 75)

London, 1959: Larry Dunne is an idealistic Communist with a massive chip on his shoulder. He writes bad poetry, works in a bookshop, hangs out in Joe's Cafe (with a big poster of Stalin on the wall) and wonders what his upper-class girlfriend Pamela is up to when she's not with him. The publication of a friend's book catalyses his envy and resentment, and he decides to take up a teaching post in Budapest.

Hungary in the Cold War is not at all what Larry expects. Instead of joyful socialism, he finds paranoia, corruption and deprivation. His students are entertaining enough (especially Angelika, a ballerina who Larry can't quite bring himself to mention in his letters home) and they have great fun imagining the private lives of the Brown family who feature so heavily in their set texts.

Then a woman is murdered in a neighbouring apartment, and Larry finds himself suspected of the crime. "Everybody is under suspicion," Major Nagy informs him. Larry promptly, though not deliberately, disappears: and the second part of the novel concerns the attempts, in England and in Hungary, to track him down and find the murderer. The plot, as they say, thickens: Major Nagy is keen to discover the true identity of the operative calling himself 'Mr Brown'; in London, Pamela meets Larry's friend Imre and finds herself in trouble with the police; the Foreign Office sits up and takes notice of a Swedish businessman who befriended Larry at the Hungarian border. Nobody is quite what they seem -- or quite what they seemed to Larry, at any rate.

I'm very fond of Elizabeth Pewsey's Mountjoy series: Losing Larry didn't engage me as much, because I didn't connect with any of the characters, but the writing is still witty and Pewsey has a nice eye for detail -- and a good sense of the ridiculous -- especially in the Budapest scenes.

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