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With a little help from his friendsFragrant Harbourby John LanchesterFaber 1699 pp310What does John Lanchester sound like What is his true voice his tone his signature style To read his fiction is to be left wondering about such things because there is no one characteristic Lanchester style you do not open one of his books at random as you do something by say Martin Amis or Will Self and immediately recognise the stamp of a manufacturers logo Instead when you read Lanchester you enter a realm of mystification and evasion if his narrators are not fiendishly unreliable they are naively self-deceiving unsure of themselves and of their place in the worldLanchester has a suspicion of omniscience of the magisterial certainties offered by a central unifying intelligence who knows everything about everyone in his own fictional universe He prefers the oblique and glancing eye the partial limited intelligence He is not the novelist-as-puppet-master moving seamlessly between conflicting consciousnesses as Ian McEwan did so masterfully in Atonement What he is rather is a talented ventriloquist he speaks most convincingly through other people subordinating his own voice to that which is stylised and createdHis celebrated debut The Debt to Pleasure 1996 was narrated by a fancily writing sociopath Tarquin Winot who was fashionably a gourmand a snob and a high-class murderer The novel reads more like an exaggerated exercise in sub-Nabokovian pastiche than a truly original work but it was amusing all the same and established Lanchester as a writer who had the potential to write very good sentences indeed Except that in his second book Mr Phillips 2000 about one day in the life of a middle-aged accountant who is made suddenly redundant Lanchester abandoned the Nabokovian high style for something altogether more restrained a style more appropriate perhaps to Mr Phillips the little man whose bland yearning consciousness we inhabit for the duration of the bookIn Fragrant Harbour Lanchester has once more opted for pastiche
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