Wednesday 22 November 2017

Review: The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

Chatto & Windus, £12.99

Eilis O'Hanlon

The fraught relationship of mistrust between reader and narrator lies at the centre of Blake Morrison's new novel: "I'm the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he's innocent. It's not like I'm a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you." But being truthful is the one thing that Ian surely isn't, and it's up to us to work out what happens in reality and what occurs only in his head.

The story begins as Ian and wife Em are invited away for a summer weekend by his old university friends, Ollie and Daisy. Ollie has rented a house in East Anglia, but what sounds like the setting for an idyllic country break turns out to be anything but. The supposedly luxurious 18th-century converted farmhouse is nothing more than an "unconverted outhouse", with only the most basic amenities -- the first hint that all is not what it seems. Worse still is the revival of old tensions and macho rivalries between Ian and Ollie.

Twenty years may have passed, but ancient resentments have begun festering in Ian again long before he has left home. Ollie is richer, more successful, better looking. To cap it all, he stole Ian's girlfriend, Daisy, 20 years ago when they were all students. Ian hasn't forgotten any of it.

Strange events pile one on another. There are noises in the rafters. A mysterious man with the improbable name of Mr Quarles makes an appearance. Ollie tells Ian he has a malignant brain tumour and doesn't have long to live, though he hasn't told Daisy. Later, Daisy claims to know all about it, but insists the tumour is benign.

Who's telling the truth? What's going on? Then there's Daisy. Is she really being over-familiar with another house guest, or is this all a figment of Ian's fevered imagination? Who to trust? Meanwhile, cracks open in Ian and Em's marriage over her inability to conceive a child. They've been saving money for IVF treatment, but Ian has secretly gambled it away. That's one of the reasons why he accepts a sporting challenge from Ollie, the loser of which must pay the winner £10,000.

All the time, the sun is beating down relentlessly and death is everywhere. Flies are "swaddled in spider's threads". Ian finds a dead owl by the side of the road. Even the "salt worn tree trunks lay like corpses in the sand". Everything seems unreal.

And as the heat rises on the outside, so too does the tension in the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere between the protagonists.

It's in this highly charged milieu that Ian and Ollie play out the last of their three sporting challenges with a climactic swim in a North Sea so cold that "even the sun at its hottest couldn't warm it". By now, the reader is completely uncertain about both men's motives. How far is each man prepared to go to win the challenge? What happens isn't exactly surprising, but it's shocking all the same.

It's to Morrison's credit that, whilst none of his characters could remotely be described as likeable, the reader is desperate to know what happens to them.

Best known as a poet and non-fiction writer, who has written widely on male psychology and violence, in The Last Weekend, he skilfully combines the best of that creative dichotomy; it's the tautest of literary thrillers in which not a word is wasted, and a chilling insight into a fractured and disturbed mind.

Sunday Independent

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