Two-thirds of the way through this debut novel, we are told “Marc had stood for what seemed a long time, watching his father take a pinch of tobacco from a pouch, and then tamp it into his pipe with his forefinger”. I think “tamp” is one of those words given away for free on Creative Writing courses. Nobody who actually smokes a pipe thinks “tamp”; it is an arch and pseudo-literary word wishing to convey atmosphere and character and some sort of heightened diction. When I judged the Man Booker Prize, the use of the word “tamp” – it occurred in several novels we read – was a clear indicator of a book that was striving and not succeeding. My insight has not been overturned by this work.
All That’s Left To Tell begins with Marc, a Pepsi executive, being kidnapped in Karachi. He is held prisoner by two men called Azhar and Saabir, and is visited each day by the mysterious Josephine, in whose presence he is always blindfolded. She asks him to tell stories and she tells stories back.
Call it a kind of critical telepathy after so long reading books, but in the first few pages I wrote down “Dialogue very like Harold Pinter”, and on page 34 we are told that Josephine appeared in a production of Pinter’s The Homecoming. Sometimes it’s best not to signal your influences so gauchely. It later morphs into a version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and does so equally ineptly.
Marc, it seems, did not attend his daughter Claire’s funeral, and Josephine, as a kind of torture, tells him stories of what her life might have been like. They are then filtered through another set of stories, as the fictional Claire conjured by Josephine has Marc’s later life narrated by a hitchhiker, Genevieve, who seems to have surprising access to the story of Marc’s imprisonment. It is very similar to Paul Auster’s later and weaker works: two blind men playing chess in the dark, stories within stories, and a strange valorisation of story in and of itself as a good thing. Just keep talking.
Compared with a work like Tahar ben Jelloun’s This Blinding Absence Of Light, the kidnapping and yappity torture scenes here are frankly embarrassing. It is in fact merely a conceit, and I mean that with all the double-entendres it might carry. The novel is fundamentally sentimental rather than political. It is, as Sir Walter Scott said of Tobias Smollett, “sedulously polished into excellence”. It is so honed, so desperately chiselled, one wonders if it might not have been better if every word had been slowly eroded.
The back-and-forth between Marc and Josephine is a structural device to put short stories into a kind of novel.
We get various stories of Claire’s childhood friendships, off-the-rails period, putative life running a motel, hypothetical point where she is driving to her father’s deathbed. They are all quite good, and intermittently affecting, stories, but the names could have been changed with no consequence and published separately.
They are, of course, in the key of Raymond Carver: blue collar blues, macho men who are weak, dirty little epiphanies. It seems as if this book was pre-written to a set of prescriptions and prohibitions that no-one now thinks relevant. For all its attempts to tug the heart strings, it comes across as a singularly sterile and stagnant work.
“She thought the story would be like a thick haze through which only slowly the other things of her life would emerge, and the memory of the haze would cling to those things for a long, long time”. I can imagine the lazy drawl with which these words might be spoken, but if you begin to unpick them for actual meaning, they mean nothing at all. It’s Creative Writing, not writing.
The sexual politics of the book are both complicated and blunt. Marc cannot see and wants to see Josephine’s face. Josephine’s Claire is ambiguously attracted to Genevieve. Claire’s boyfriend in the Josephine version of her is haunted by her partner’s fantasies about her being raped. A nasty incident happens, which seems like narrative expediency more than necessary plotting, a plot device rather than a narrative necessity.
The central story of this book of unreliable stories is not about terror, but lust. Marc – rather too early – confesses he once kissed his daughter on the lips when she was 14. It seems a rather glib confession for a topic so toxic. One might have thought that he would have held out a bit, given the shamefulness. But the “lyrical” writing around it, and its echo in one of the other stories, left me feeling queasy, and not in a good way.
The jacket flap says this is a book where “neither Marc nor Josephine are sure which stories are true and which are imagined, or even if it matters”. Take it from me: it doesn’t.
*All That’s Left To Tell, by Daniel Lowe, Picador, £14.99