Book review: Wild Abandon by Joe Dunthorne
Imagine The Good Life writ large, transplanted from Tom and Margo's priggish Surbiton to rural Wales, and with the enemy grown to embrace the homogenising grind of capitalism and "piss-drinking drudge of city life". This is the setting for Joe Dunthorne's slick follow-up to his wildly successful debut novel, Submarine.
Dunthorne's fictional community, Blaen-y-llyn, is headed by Don, a paunchy ideologue with a "thick castaway's beard" and a passion for lo-tech invention. His child-protecting Ad-guard, for example, is a rail-mounted square of shower curtain that flips down over the TV screen to make images appear misty. Even better are the headphones and microphone that comprise Don's Personal Instrument, a teaching tool deployed in a barmy parody of a teenage rite of passage.
Don's long-suffering wife, Freya, pinned to heroic status by Don's self-serving praise, has had enough, although it's not clear what she wants, while the pot-addled, ex-landlord Patrick is drowning in his own lack of ambition and unrequited love for a fellow communard.
When we encounter the ensemble cast of Wild Abandon, the community experiment is in crisis: membership is dwindling and Don's marriage, ever the barometer of Blaen-y-llyn's health, is on the rocks. The only thing propping up the rambling farmhouse is the income generated by Janet's "proto-gothic recycled jewellery" business, regularly featured in Elle.
Dunthorne deploys a talent for getting inside the heads of children to cast light on the failings of the adults around them. Don's daughter Kate, 17, is desperate to escape into the arms of boyfriend Geraint and the predictable banalities of his suburban life. She regards the rampant drug-taking of her fellow communards as something old people do, "the way most teenagers think about opera". But the book's star turn is 11-year-old Albert, at once precocious and vulnerable, with a smooth telephone manner (he fields calls from "the outside" with ferocious wit) and an immutable conviction that the world is about to end.
He's right, of course. Except it is the world of Blaen-y-llyn that's teetering on the apocalypse, crumbling from within as the forceful proclamations that once sustained it (Don's "new structures for living") dim to a whimper. In a final bid to rejuvenate the community, Don plans a huge rave. It is a scheme of such exquisite self-deception that Dunthorne has you wincing on Don's behalf, page after page-turning page.
• Joe Dunthorne is at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 19 August.