This is the 12th novel in the Alex Rider series; just when we thought he was settling back in at school, with his days spying for MI6 firmly behind him, he is called on to thwart a biochemical attack on London, to save those close to him as well as strangers. Also set in Gibraltar and Greece, this latest action adventure introduces Nightshade, a villainous organisation that steals young children and trains them to be killers. Alex knows someone whose children have been recruited, and throughout he has moral choices to make.
One thing that sets Nightshade ahead of most novels about the art world is that the art in it is plausible and fully realised, even if it’s mostly off the peg. Eve’s work is a kind of love child of Simon Patterson’s ‘Great Bear’ and Ian Hamilton Finlay’s ‘Women of the Revolution’, after Anselm Kiefer’s and Anya Gallaccio’s flower installations. Wanda’s is a lurid cocktail of Marina Abramovic, Sophie Calle and Orlan. There’s a horrific dinner party, which sounds very like Terry Castle’s experience of escorting Susan Sontag to dinner with the said Abramovic in her vast, virtually empty loft in New York’s Soho — described sublimely in the LRB in March 2005.
The questions bounced around are fascinating and underexplored. Is the relationship between Eve and the 30-year-old different, morally, to the one she had with Kis? Are female artists held to harsher standards than their male contemporaries? But art history teaches us that the real indignity suffered by so-called muses is that their own opinions and personalities are wiped clean in favour of the artist’s vision (think of Picasso, who painted mainly women while dismissing them as “goddesses and doormats”). As Luka makes it increasingly clear he’s not happy to occupy this passive role, the narrative shifts into even murkier territory.
McAfee’s prose is lyrical yet sharp, and her descriptions of both the method and the intricately researched work itself are superbly convincing. Eve is far from a sympathetic character, viewing her only daughter as “a gluten-intolerant, humbug-tolerant liberal” and “social media virtue signaller”, but thematically, the novel fascinates. What is the cost of pursuing one’s vision, especially for a woman? How random is fame? And is a rounded life even possible for a true artist? The author achieves the hard task of portraying a different art form with conviction, and stays just the right side of satire in her rendition of art world excess.