Set in a post-Brexit world, this novel by Sam Byers takes aim at a multitude of targets: the rise of the far right and the related coarsening of public discourse; the commentariat – both in traditional media such as newspapers and online, and their various obsessions; the harassment of women and minorities online; urban development and immigration; the domination of our life and world by tech companies and social media. And more besides.
The narrative takes place in a fictional English town, Edmundsbury, which to me evoked a place like Milton Keynes, one of these outlying towns which tries desperately to attract businesses and corporate HQs to their business parks in order to raise revenue. In Edmundsbury’s case that means Green, a multinational tech behemoth more in keeping with California’s Silicon Valley. Green is given such leeway that quietly it’s been allowed to tamper with the town’s infrastructure, it’s street-lighting for example. Meanwhile, the local run down Larchwood housing estate is being emptied, residents persuaded through all manner of means – both carrot and stick – to decant elsewhere. When a bunch of tricksters in masks calling themselves The Griefers turn up, threatening to expose people’s online secrets to all and sundry, the delicate balance and tensions that exist in the town and between the book’s cast of characters threatens to spin off kilter.
There’s Robert Townsend, a centre-left blogger, his partner, Jess Ellis, a researcher into internet misogyny, and his nemesis, Julia Benjamin – a mysterious online force who comments on everything he posts, meticulously and critically dissecting it; there’s Trina James, a worker at Green who also lives on the Larchwood Estate, and Alfred Darkin, one of Trina’s neighbours and a disabled man with whom the developers are starting to get heavy; there’s Hugo Bennington, the leader of the England Always party, and a definite parody of Nigel Farage, and finally Teddy, Hugo’s surreal political adviser and part-time “productivity guru”.
All these characters are finely balanced and have almost equal parts to play in the plot, their tales finely interwoven into a story that many a reviewer has likened to an episode of Black Mirror. Perhaps it’s my political and journalistic background, but my favourite strand had to be the more overtly political. Hugo Bennington and his England Always party were wonderfully written, Hugo’s inner voice pretty much how I suspect Farage’s to be. While Teddy swings between both absurdity and sinister. Their relationship too with another organisation Brute Force – which is reminiscent of the English Defence League – Hugo and Teddy meeting Brute Force’s leader incognito to coordinate activity, while keeping them at arm’s length.
Having been a journalist for a good number of years, the author’s depiction of the commentariat – the bloggers and opinion piece writers – was also spot on. Without naming names, I came into contact with many of this type, some household names, and the opinion I formed of some of those of a more controversial ilk was that it really was like a game to them, that they didn’t realise, nor particularly care, about the impact of the poison they dripped into the body politic. This is vividly described in this novel and a number of the most reprehensible characters to populate the book’s pages are such people.
A big target of Perfidious Albion is the impact of tech companies and social media on all our lives, and again being careful to avoid spoilers, it’s safe to say that this is central to the novel’s plot, and that all the strands revolve around this. That said, this novel is hugely ambitions, perhaps too much so, for I did feel that its impact was lost somewhat by its diffusion. By having so much to say about so many subjects, the author risked blunting his story’s impact.
Perfidious Albion is beautifully written, and at points is raucously funny. Again, I found the dialogue to and fro between Hugo Bennington and his adviser Teddy, to be especially so. This is not a genre novel, not a beach read, rather it’s a cerebral and timely novel that has much to say about contemporary politics, the impact of social media and technology, the structure of society. It’s well worth a read.
James Pierson 4/5
Perfidious Albion by Sam Byers
Faber & Faber 9780571336302 pbk Mar 2019