The Rescue Man, by Anthony Quinn
The Other Side of the Stars, by Clemency Burton-Hill
When journalists venture into no man’s land and begin writing fiction, they do so in the knowledge that it could all get a bit messy. It’s not long before the sound of grinding axes start up. So it’s a pleasant surprise to find two hacks emerging from the fray relatively unscathed. With The Rescue Man, Anthony Quinn, the Independent’s film critic, has taken Liverpool’s blitz during the second world war as the backdrop to a unusual tale of betrayal and obsession. In a city where faith and alcohol ferment on the waterfront, historian Tom Baines is a man with a more idiosyncratic passion: architecture. As the Luftwaffe pursues its whistle-stop tour of the skyline, Tom finds ‘his mind’s eye clouded with ashes and rubble’. So he joins the Heavy Rescue team, pulling survivors out of the wreckage. An affair with a photographer’s wife and an obsession with the diaries of a Victorian architect slowly divert his attention from the mayhem. It soon becomes apparent that this is a novel interested in the façades of human nature as much as stonemasonry.
At times Baines and his beloved landscape almost merge through their shared trauma. ‘The city was still holding its breath as spring lurched into summer,’ notes Baines. ‘Anxiety had become his companion. It woke in the morning in front of the blackout curtains, hovered by the wireless, read the newspaper over his shoulder.’ Understandably, Quinn has a cinematic eye for narrative scope. In particular, the collaborations of Graham Greene and Carol Reed are invoked (even the name Baines is borrowed from The Fallen Idol).
Like all good debut novels this book tells us something new. Or rather something old that failed to lodge in the national consciousness. Arriving in the wake of Liverpool’s tenure as capital of culture and the recent success of Terence Davies’ Of Time and the City, its publication is opportune. For once, here is an affecting love song to Liverpool that isn’t set to George and Ringo’s backbeat.
The Other Side of the Stars finds The Spectator’s contributing editor Clemency Burton-Hill equally intrigued by the precarious psychological purchase provided by the past. Lara Latner, a young actress in the ascendant, is shocked to find herself suddenly New York-bound, pitched to re-work her late mother’s most famous role for a new Hollywood production. The story plays out with flashback spooning flashback until a clear chronology comes into focus. Eve Lacloche was a 1970s sensation: Audrey Hepburn with a Parisian pout. Her daughter is more Notting Hill chic. Lara’s father, an English diplomat stationed in the Middle East, is holding out on a dark detail from the time Eve gave her Oscar-tipped performance. Her parents’ courtship and tentative early days of marriage intersect with Lara’s romantic scuffles and her haphazard voyage of discovery.
With all the brunches in Portobello and teas at Sketch, at times the book veers precariously close to Richard Curtis territory. And while neatly plotting a young pretender’s investigation into the mysteries left by her lauded predecessor, this is no Rebecca. Instead, it’s a disarmingly good-natured breeze of a read that remains as fizzy as a Chablis spritzer. What threatens to be a transatlantic potboiler is saved by the warmth of Burton-Hill’s characters and a rattling pace. Not averse to mugging for the camera herself, she is particularly incisive on the psychology of actors. We all know they’re as reliable as South West Trains but this is a book that captures that particular combination of arrogance and insecurity inherent in someone employed to temporarily be another person. A worthy effort that deserves a bow.