Book review: Caledonian Road, by Andrew O'Hagan

Ambitious in both scale and scope, Caledonian Road paints an ugly but unflinching portrait of our troubled times, writes Allan Massie

It is a surprise to see a duke listed in the cast list of Andrew O’Hagan’s vast new novel. Anyone shocked may be reassured, however. Anthony, Duke of Kendall, is stupid, greedy, dishonest, in hock to a Russian tycoon and swims in corruption – an emblematic figure of Britain today, if also a comic one.

O’Hagan has written an enthralling, up-to-date and yet very old-fashioned novel in the grand Victorian manner, recalling Trollope’s The Way We Live Now, and Ouida’s masterpiece The Massarenes. It is 21st century Vanity Fair without the bitter comedy, Disraeli’s “two nations – the rich and the poor”, both now drug-addicted and mostly engaged in criminality. There are only a few honest, respectable, hard-working people, so not all life is here and much of what is on view is rotten. If the rich stink of Russian money, laundered with the help of corrupt Labour and Tory peers, energetic lower-class criminals around Caledonian Road have their Russian sponsor too, as they engage in people smuggling and run cannabis farms in Kent. O’Hagan’s London is a horrible place, but he does make it compellingly alive.

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The novel has a hero, though a damaged one, Campbell Flynn – art historian and critic, author of an outstanding study of Vermeer. A Glasgow working-class boy, he made his way to Oxford and has married into the aristocracy – the Duke of Kendall is his brother-in law. He has a loving wife, a mother-in-law who adores him and two successful children. All is not sunshine however. A sitting tenant in the basement of their fine house is the bane of his life. On the first page we learn he no longer pays his taxes, and his best friend from Oxford days is a retail tycoon whose is heading for the rocks. Despite appearances, Campbell is uneasy.

He is fascinated by one of his students, Milo, a very intelligent Caledonian Road boy, son of an Irish father and Ethiopian mother, who will introduce him to the darker mysteries of the internet. Milo is a high-minded idealist and, like many idealists, dangerous for a man like Campbell and ready to do wrong so long as the cause is good.

The novel has a huge cast, but happily the publishers supply a two-page list of the principal characters, to which I found myself repeatedly returning. There are several plotlines, so that even Campbell disappears from the narrative for quite long periods. It is enthralling, though sometimes confusing. It is full of action, not short of horror – a picture of a turbulent and diseased society.

O’Hagan has always been a moralist, so the novel presents a picture of a diseased society and hints of the medicine it requires. He is also a feminist and, with only a couple of exceptions, the women here are more admirable than the men. That said, he is, like most of us, flexible in his moral judgement, ready to excuse wrong-doing if the cause is right, a good end being allowed to justify law-breaking and other questionable means.

Not everything works. The Russian oligarch’s son Yuri is a character who doesn’t quite come off, is never quite credible in the range of his involvement with the criminal underworld. (On the other hand his relationship with a Blairite Labour peer is as credible as it is amusing and horrible.) There is also a newspaper columnist, the wife of the retail tycoon, and the immediacy of her volte-face when her husband’s troubles become undeniable is not quite convincing.

Writer Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Jon Tonks/PA WireWriter Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Jon Tonks/PA Wire
Writer Andrew O'Hagan. Picture: Jon Tonks/PA Wire

Overall, however, O’Hagan has written a remarkable and very enjoyable novel, one I read with fascination. It presents a horrible picture of the world as it is today, or at least of the dark side of our time – a study in corruption, meanness and greed. Yet at the same time it has a splendid vitality, and in Campbell Flynn it has an often infuriating, sometimes pitiable but always authentic damaged hero, teetering on the verge of self-destruction. It is a novel on a scale which is rare today, and one which makes you think and feel at the same time.

Caledonian Road, by Andrew O’Hagan, Faber & Faber, £20