This was the third book I read from the long list for the Desmond Elliott Prize. (I’m chairing the judges this year). What an eclectic and intriguing list it is proving to be.
Set in a licentious coffee house London where cash is still king even as Europe is swept by revolution, ‘Sedition’ is one of the most delightfully contrary novels I have ever met.
The book is a period piece rich with historical detail, yet its dialogue and themes are resolutely modern. It is a light-hearted comedy of arriviste parental aspirations versus breathless teenage deflowerings, but the comic flow works against a counter current of convincing darkness. The novel repeatedly flirts with the erotic but coolly pulls focus. It is built on high musical metaphors, yet it isn’t above deploying the lowest euphemisms: this is a novel where, during a very technical variation on Bach, a man might contemplate whether he will go in by the servant’s entrance.
This, then, is a tease of a novel. It continually offers one thing only to snatch it away and replace it with something quite else – and it does this again and again, right through to an ending that is a clever – because fitting – anti-climax.
I will confess to being buffeted by this novel as if by squally winds. Just when I thought I had its number, the author took the already disturbing relationship between the novel’s femme fatale, Alathea, and her father to an altogether more serious place. There is a disturbing and unquiet beast hiding in the heart of this heavily-veiled novel. The author never completely reveals the novel or its characters, and the effect, at least on me, was unexpected.
In keeping with the novel’s paradoxical qualities, I always adored the plot and occasionally deplored the style. I found myself irritated enough to throw the book at the wall several times, but then intrigued enough to read the whole thing twice.
It was startling to realise that something so contrary to one’s taste can be very much to one’s liking. I finally admit to finding the book extremely impressive.
What won me over was the sheer strength of the story, which has the legs to escape the bounds of the novel. I could not help visualising ‘Sedition’ as a multi-part TV production, complete with a burlesque cast of debutantes both vampish and ingénue, a flawed Cassanova scheming to defile them one per episode, a high-contrast aesthetic of beauty, ugliness and deformity, a fetid and lusty London for a backdrop, a hundred exquisite costumes, and a ready-made soundtrack by J.S. Bach.
This is a wonderful read from a born storyteller.