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27 June 2010

The Last Hurrah

I wanted to read Blake Morrison's novel The Last Weekend since I read a review in the Grauniad a couple of months ago but it took so long to reach my library that in the interim I had forgotten the main reason why the book appealed so much: the ├╝ber-unreliable narrator. It didn't take many pages for me to remember, however, as this unreliable narrator is anything but subtle.

The premise is fairly simple: there are two forty-something couples, one of whom is rich, successful and attractive, and the other less so. The two men were friends at university--unlikely friends, perhaps, given how much more Generally Awesome Ollie is than Ian but they end up living together and indeed, Ollie meets his future partner, Daisy, through Ian (well, she was reluctantly dating Ian at the time and soon moved on to his  more attractive, more confident buddy). Ollie is now a successful lawyer, Daisy a headhunter for the creative fields, while Ian is a primary school teacher and his wife, Em, a social worker. Although Ian is the godfather of Ollie and Daisy's son, the two couples have grown apart and only see each other every couple of years.

One evening, Ian gets a call from Ollie inviting him and Em to go and stay with them at the dilapidated country pile they are renting for the summer in Norfolk during the August bank holiday--the eponymous  last weekend. Reluctantly--or, at least, with overt reluctance--Ian agrees and a few weeks later, he and Em make the long journey down from The North. Add fractiously hot bank holiday weather, a whole lot of booze and decades old jealousies and new secrets rise to the surface and for a novel that takes place, for the most part, over four days, there is an awfully big storm brewing.

I read the novel in a single sitting partly because it was so compulsive and, perhaps, partly because at times, we all feel like we have friends a little like Ollie and Daisy (compared to our own Ian and Em). This was despite the fact that none of the characters were very likable. At least, none of the characters seemed very likable. The problem is that we only have Ian's word for it and Ian's word, as we soon learn, is not worth much. He contradicts himself, he changes his story and sometimes, he seems to misinterpret events and actions that even we the reader can see are happening differently (this is no mean feat given that the whole novel is told in the first person). His words won't be so blatantly self-contradictory all of the time but you begin to wonder whether he is even capable of speaking the truth or whether he is completely delusional.

Particularly paradoxical is that Ollie is shown to be a compulsive liar--Ian takes care to point out dozens of examples of occasions where Ollie has contradicted himself--but if a liar calls someone else a liar, should we believe them? In fact, this component of the novel had me wondering, part-way through, whether Ollie and Daisy were going to turn out to be completely fabricated, Ollie being the "better" version of Ian that the latter sees in his mind. I don't think this is where this story was going but it could have been. Equally, can we really dislike Ian's "steady" but nagging wife who never seems to forgive him for not having borne her any children when we are only seeing her through Ian's eyes? I would like to say yes but Morrison has done such a good job of writing Ian as Iago that his character hangs like a dark cloud over every sentence (and yes, the book opens with an epithet from Othello and yes, Ollie's name begins with the same letter as Othello's, Daisy's as Desdemona's, Em's as Emilia's and Ian's as Iago's, so this isn't subtle either).

Gripped as I was by The Last Weekend, when I turned the last page, I felt quite empty as though not enough--or maybe too much--had been resolved. It seems that you can have too much of a good thing, after all; or too much of an unreliable thing, at any rate.

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