No escape from hell


by Kenneth J Harvey

Harvill Secker, 282pp, 16.99

THIS NOVEL COMES garlanded with praise from John Banville, who calls it "tough, unrelenting, thrilling and darkly eloquent". Since Banville, winner last year of the Man Booker prize, is one of the best novelists this side of the Atlantic, his recommendation of any book is not to be lightly dismissed. That said, though I wouldn't dispute the appropriateness of his first two adjectives - dark and unrelenting - Inside seems to me an interesting and ambitious failure.

The main character, always referred to as Mister Myrden, has spent 14 years in prison, having been found guilty of murder. It has now been established that the evidence on which he was convicted was tainted, therefore unsafe. So he is released, granted a pardon and is in line for substantial compensation. But what sum of money can compensate a man for 14 years stolen from his life?

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The novel tells the story of his attempts to adjust to life on the outside, while remaining "inside" in his own head. He comes from a criminal family, of the kind now described as "dysfunctional". His father killed his mother, he himself, even if innocent of the crime for which he was committed, is a man with a violent past. At least two of his sons have done time; one has been killed in a car crash. His wife is living with another man, and his daughter suffers at the hands of an abusive husband. He hopes to extricate her from this marriage, for her sake and, especially for the sake of his little granddaughter, Caroline, whom he loves with a tender and anxious devotion. If he can rescue Caroline, he will have achieved something.

Apart from this, and his revived friendship with a childhood sweetheart, Ruth, it is not clear to him what he wants - revenge or escape from the past? - or how to make any contact with the world around him. The sense of his dislocation and emotional isolation is well conveyed. There is no doubt at all that Kenneth J Harvey has thoroughly imagined his Mister Myrden, and that he is a convincing figure.

The novel goes on principally in his head, and his impressions are rendered in short staccato bursts of words. They go like this:

"The room was big. Wide open. Wooden floors scuffed black in places. The smell of beer drank for years. Cigarettes fizzled out in beer bottles. Drinkers who drank from morning until dark. Daybreak to blackness coming early. Shutting down the day. The place was just up the street. Around the corner. A woman on a stool. Greasy black hair. Head hanging down. Two men. One to either side of her. Looking out for her. They looked the same. The two men. Waiting to go off. The woman. Blood between them. He knew who they were. Have nothing to do with that family. He kept his eyes off them. Something he'd learned in the pen. Eye contact for no more than a second. The fuse only that long in some."

You can see why Banville calls the novel "unrelenting".

The trouble with this style is not only that it quickly becomes wearisome to read - though that is quite a big trouble in a novel - but that, as a representation of how experience is felt, observed, recorded, it rings false. All representations of feeling and perception are unavoidably approximations, just as dialogue in a novel is never actually true to life; but some are more convincing than others. It seems to me that in this novel the author has become the prisoner of his method. Others, clearly, disagree with this judgment and find it a far more effective and powerful novel than I do.