Reviewer: Linda Hepworth

Publisher: Zaffre   (Imprint of Bonnier Books UK)     2nd September 2021

ISBN: 978-1838775254     PB

I think the major strength in Robert Peston’s storytelling in this political thriller is the convincing authenticity of his depictions of politicians, the workings of Parliament and the Civil Service, political journalists, the adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of press rooms, the pressure of journalistic deadlines, the power exerted by media tycoons, corporate greed and the obstacles put in the way of anyone who is attempting to expose corruption of any kind. By setting his novel in 1997, during the run up to the General Election, he used his professional knowledge to very good effect, evoking the highly febrile nature of the political mood of the time, the public’s disillusion with the government of the day and the strong desire for change, all of which will be instantly recognisable to anyone who lived through that period.

However, the downside to this was that I found myself spending too much time wondering which real-life people some of his characters were possibly (probably!) based on. Whilst that was quite entertaining, I think this distraction contributed to my difficulty in feeling fully engaged with the developing plot, particularly during the first half of the story. This meant that it wasn’t until the second half of the story that I began to experience the escalating tension I expect from a thriller and, once this had happened, to feel more invested in what was happening to the fictional characters. Although there were occasions when I thought the development of the storyline relied too heavily on some improbable coincidences, on balance, the rather dark, labyrinthine plot felt all too depressingly believable. Without wishing to give anything of the plot away, I appreciated the extra twist the author introduced to the ‘whistle-blower’ aspect of the story.

Although many of the characters were distinctly flawed, each one was well-drawn (‘warts and all’) and, with their various peccadilloes, made a convincing contribution to the author’s portrayal of the rather murky world of political manoeuvrings and shenanigans, lobbying and the powerful influences of big business and the media which underpinned the storyline. With his drink and drug habits, his vanity, his frequently amoral behaviour when it came to how he obtained information for his next big story (something which had caused his estrangement from his sister) and his generally self-centred attitudes, I must admit that initially I found it difficult to find any redeeming features in Gil. However, the gradual revelations about his past experiences, both personal and professional, enabled me to understand what drove him and, very slowly, to begin to warm to him! I think this process was helped by the fact that I really liked Jess, his colleague and fellow seeker of the truth behind Claire’s death, and thought that if she was prepared to help him, he must have some saving-graces! It was also helped by the many ways in which the author so effectively incorporated themes of ambivalence, trust, loyalty, betrayal, grief, mourning and love, when exploring Gil’s past and present relationships, particularly those with members of his family (his parents, his two nephews and his brother-in-law) in the weeks following Claire’s death.

Whilst this is unlikely to be one of my top-ten books of the year, I did find it an entertaining read, particularly enjoying the dry humour and political satire which was a key feature of Robert Peston’s storytelling.