Lott’s obvious ambition to capture an era gives rise to an almost absurd litany of namechecked drinks, clothes and electrical products, along with decor and phrases (you can’t help feeling he must have kept a list of period details for inserting into the narrative), but as these stories of deliberately stereotypical characters get fully under way — with tragedy, drama, comeuppance and comedy — the book finally triumphs.
The arrival of Diamond Tony, the most vital of Lott’s original gang of four, livens things up. A reformed former addict, he provides a counterpoint to Frankie’s leaden assertions that “money is meaning” and “there’s nothing in the centre of us … just black”. But he also gives Lott a chance to trot out the tired cliche of the upper-class woman who is subjected to rough, borderline-abusive sex – and finds it delightfully exciting. Only in the epilogue do we get a change of key, when Frankie puts down his phone at last and plays with his daughter. It’s a moving passage, delivering some welcome emotional progression. We were never expecting a happy ending, but this, at least, reads like a happy beginning.
Along the way, Lott delivers many hilarious and sad scenes of life in a long-term relationship. He also explores the poignancy and fragility of male friendships, in a manner reminiscent of Graham Swift’s Last Orders. It seems a slight shame that he didn’t take us up to the present day, with Frankie and his motley crew in their fifties, dealing with midlife crises, illness, austerity and Brexit – but perhaps that’s all material for a sequel. What is certain is that by this, his seventh novel, Lott is a far better writer than he was when he began. He is less eager to impress, and, crucially, careful to linger over moral difficulty and vulnerability rather than evading it.
Spanning the years from Millennium Eve up to 2008, Tim Lott’s latest revisits characters from his 1999 debut novel, White City Blue, to map their fluctuating progress through that pre-crash innocence, with the focus again on fly- by-night Frankie, now married to flinty Veronica and running his estate agency...
The problem is that we know it’s all going to come falling down, around Frankie in particular, but are never invested enough to care about the inevitable impact on their lives.
Nodge, however, is a fine character and the only one with a heart that seems to work. Pity we don’t hear more from him.