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End of the World Blues review

All things must pass? But the future still looks bright for Brit SF.

362 PAGES · £12.99

Author: John Courtenay Grimwood

Publisher:
Gollancz

ISBN:
0-575-07616-X

Rating: 5/5

The new wave of Brit SF is dead. Don’t worry, it’s to be expected and the patient doesn’t need resuscitating. Every self-respecting movement defines itself and then burns out. So it is that what John Meaney called “an explosion of dark energy” has dissipated, its main players heading in their own directions.

Which may be the point at which things get really interesting. For a musical analogy, think of Public Image Ltd’s debut single, “Public Image”: Keith Levene’s fractured guitar lines a challenge to punk’s three-chord certainties and John Lydon howling his derision at anyone who thought they’d got him pinned down.

Now look at some of the SF New Wave’s main players. Justina Robson has swapped introversion for fun; China Miéville, having honed his nouveau gothic with the extraordinary imagery of The Iron Council, is apparently working on a young adult novel; Al Reynolds’s experiments with the space opera suggest impatience with the form itself… The list goes on, a roll-call of writers all, in different ways, rejecting our expectations of them.

To that list, add Jon Courtenay Grimwood. Think of Grimwood and you think of a writer able to sheen and polish his writing – at times arguably to the detriment of his storytelling, because his ideas and trickery can be so dazzling. But what might happen if he were to swap technically brilliant plot-driven cleverness for a deeper examination of his characters? Having hinted at such an evolution with Stamping Butterflies and 9Tail Fox, that may just be what he’s done with End of the World Blues.

Which is not to say that Grimwood has suddenly become a kitchen sink chronicler of dour Northern towns. Far from it. Like its immediate predecessors, End of the World is an exotic brew of mythical far-future landscapes, noir and narratives that merge as Grimwood teases out the connections between different characters.

What’s especially striking, though, is that End of the World Blues frequently comes across like a debut novel. The key to this apparent contradiction lies with Grimwood’s protagonist, Kit Nouveau. A British Army veteran of the second Gulf War, deserter Kit has fetched up in Tokyo, where he runs a bar. He’s married to a genius potter, Yoshi, but she’s a woman caught up in her own art, and Kit’s having an affair with a high yakuza’s wife.

This may be typical Grimwood territory, but the backstory isn’t, because, in debut novel style, we’re shown flashbacks to Kit’s troubled relationship with his first love, Mary. These passages have a particular melancholy, vivid quality that leads you to guess they’re likely to be partly autobiographical.

But Grimwood isn’t just looking backwards to adolescence. Much of the action here is driven by Nijie/Lady Neku, both a lost street urchin and a figure from a distant future – not that she can always remember her different identities, because Kit has taken some of her memories.

When we learn (on page one, no messing) that Nijie has stolen $15 million Grimwood’s plot is running, and he never skimps on the hardboiled dialogue, twists, turns, gangsters or über-violence. Quite right, too – novels are supposed to be entertaining – yet again End of The World Blues refuses to be simply an SF noir. In the midst of the fighting and fucking, it’s also a novel about parenting, as explored through Nijie and Kit’s friendship, and when Mary’s parents unexpectedly re-enter Kit’s life. It’s also a theme that artfully dovetails the flashback sequences, adding resonance.

The New Wave is dead, but don’t worry: its leading lights – and with his best novel to date, that certainly includes Jon Courtenay Grimwood – are in rude health.

Jonathan Wright

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