Estranged father on path to self-destruct
Fiction: Dancing to the End of Love, Adrian White, Black & White Publishing, pbk, 310 pages, €11.35
Robert Lanaghan, the protagonist in this strange and unsettling novel, is a self-confessed misogynist. He's also a washed-up writer, a world-weary traveller and a man with a throbbing self-destruct button that he can't seem to resist. He's a dab hand at destroying others, too. And their pets.
Robert was once a doting father and a loving partner. He stayed at home with his baby daughter while the daughter's mother, a hugely successful rock star called Siobhan, toured the world with her band. But the couple's relationship ends abruptly, and Robert is cut adrift from his child.
To Robert's eternal shame, he accepts a large financial settlement in return for waiving his parental rights. And so begins a protracted foreign travelling spell, meant as a kind of running-away exercise, except of course he has to bring himself along. And so he does, living in Tunisia and Morocco, then later in Greece and Italy.
Hellbent on upending any familial happiness, he spots a happy family on a Ryanair flight from Pisa to London, and deliberately cosies up to one family member, learning that they live in Brighton. On a whim, having already checked his luggage on a further flight to Dublin, Lanaghan changes direction and decides to head to Brighton instead. There's nobody waiting for him in Dublin, anyway.
It's difficult to reveal more without dropping spoilers, but things go seriously belly-up for Robert, and just when you think they can't get worse, they do get worse. It's also difficult to pigeonhole this book, although that's always a good thing. It's not a straightforward thriller, not a Nick Hornby/Tony Parsons type novel either, even though genuine human interchanges occur throughout. Conversations with his best friend, Brother Daniel, are affectionate and convincingly written. But this unpleasant protagonist doesn't quite convince, despite the book's many good points. It's stylish and tightly written, and yet - or maybe because of that - when the stitches are dropped, they show. As early as the second page, we learn that the Duomo in Pisa is a sight that "never fails to blow me away". Indeed. Only two pages later, describing his latest flame, Lanaghan tells us: "She knows what she can do to me, and even though I know she knows it, I fall for it every time." Stuff like that belongs in formulaic pop songs, surely, and not in a novel as good as this.
Lanaghan is a real nasty. He knows it. And this is one of the things I wrestled with in the reading. If a protagonist is nasty, he is usually a) unaware of it, or b) has a past which allows us to at least understand why. The backfill of Lanaghans' history is insufficient to produce such a monster. Love gone wrong, even the loss of parental access, is a fairly common occurrence. False imprisonment somewhat less so. Such experiences may well embitter, but do they really create Lanaghans? Then again, the fact that this novel might spawn such debate is a measure of its punch, and it's got lots of that.
In interview, White mentioned Albert Camus' character of Meursault in L'Étranger as someone he thought about while creating Lanaghan. And, like Meursault, Lanaghan has his own epiphany, albeit by very different means (there are no guillotines). Is it a story of redemption? I'm not sure. But I couldn't put it down. Job done, Mr White.