Today’s team review is from Barb, she blogs here http://barbtaub.com/
Barb has been reading Brand New Friend by Kate Vane
When I was a child, a relative gave me a surprise ball. It was a sphere made of strips of crepe paper, which unravelled to reveal little surprise gifts along the way. I couldn’t wait to unroll all of it, sure the center must contain the best gift of all. But although it took a while and made a mess, at the end there was just…crepe paper. All the surprises and presents had been in the unwrapping, not in the final result.
The book begins with well-known BBC journalist Paolo getting a call from Mark, a friend from his mildly revolutionary student days at Leeds. At first Paolo has no interest in someone he hasn’t seen in over thirty years. Then Mark points him to an emerging story revealing he had actually been an undercover police officer. Sensing an opportunity to get back into field work, journalist Paolo agrees to meet with Mark. “Paolo was thinking radio documentary. Did he want to go with a hard-news angle or more of a personal story? Perhaps a podcast. Should he start recording now?”When I started reading Brand New Friend, I thought from the blurb and the first chapter that it would be a classic whodunnit, with the talented amateur solving the crime that baffled the police. Instead, like the layers of that surprise ball, each piece that was removed only revealed a small reward…and lots more layers to unwind. And the rewards were all in the unwrapping, instead of solving the mystery at the center.
From there the book divides into two stories, one set in the student days in the mid-eighties, and one in contemporary time. At first I was annoyed and confused by the way the narrative time-hopped with no warning, and I considered it a flaw in the writing. Then I noticed something odd. Nobody was particularly interested in actually solving the crimes—certainly not the murder that had been ruled an accident thirty years ago, and not even the murder that’s discovered when Paolo arrives in Leeds. The past and present stories were deliberately intermingled, with each participant focused on their own reality. For some it was the past—the sloppy student house and its mildly amateur student revolutionaries who are going to change the world (when their revolutionary zeal doesn’t get in the way of drugs, sex, and the occasional University lecture). For others it’s the present and the people they’ve become thirty years on. Brand New Friend is a police thriller where the least important part is actually solving the crime.
In many ways, Paolo and Mark are similar. Both assume new identities when they first arrive at Leeds. The teenage Paul seizes the chance to leave his unexciting family and prosaic background behind, reinventing himself as Italian expat and animal rights activist Paolo. Mark is sent by the Special Demonstration Squad (an undercover unit of Greater London’s Metropolitan Police Service) to infiltrate their bumbling group.
Anyone old enough to remember the University scene at the time will recognize the descriptions of the student house teeming with infatuations, drugs, filth, unrequited lust, and sex. Everything is important, the center of their self-involved universes. There’s a sure reality about those scenes that makes each a perfect little jewel in its own time. I particularly loved the moment when Paolo realizes he can be whatever he wants. He’s jealous of a fellow student reading the (liberal) Guardian newspaper.
‘Paolo thought, enviously, why can’t I do that? And then he realised he could. You could go to the newsagent and they wouldn’t ask for ID, or make you list the founder members of the Fabian Society, or visit your parent’s house to ensure they had a stripped-pine kitchen (ideally with an Aga) with a framed poster on the wall of a recent exhibition at the Tate or failing that a guide to rare mushrooms, they would just sell it to you for money.’
I’m not as convinced about the contemporary story. As journalist Paolo struggles with his current identity as a suburban father with a desk job, missing the excitement of international postings, his marriage and life seem toned down and depressing. The revelation of Mark’s secret identity rocks the foundations of Paolo’s carefully constructed world. “All Paolo’s memories were now unreliable. And it somehow heightened the indignity that while he had seen nothing in Mark, Mark had been closely observing him back then, had spotted his secret, like a proper spy.” If the story stopped there, and simply followed the development of those student characters thirty years on, it would have been absolutely riveting. But instead it reached for less convincing ‘ripped from today’s headlines’ connections—from Russian oligarchs to shady international conglomerates based in Dubai to unscrupulous mercenaries.
But the writing itself is beautifully crafted. Characters are introduced, described, and developed as both Paolo and Mark become the characters they’ve invented. Mark is, in truth, the lifelong revolutionary, working for social change. Claire, despite a surface appearance of poise and happiness thirty years on, is still absorbed by Mark. And Isabel, the beautiful, damaged artist Paolo had lusted after from afar, “…Isabel had stood still. Frozen.” Last-minute flatmate Graham, overlooked by everyone at the time and still invisible thirty years later, is the catalyst to all the revelations. Dudley, only interested in his own life back then, has become more of what he always was—richer, fatter, more powerful, and ultimately unconcerned about those around him. Paolo is the slightly exotic, always interesting journalist he invented for himself. But where Mark is frozen into his adopted role, Paolo never looks back. In fact, to all of their shock, he finds himself putting journalistic ideals ahead of self-preservation. Ultimately, it’s through that act that Paolo saves himself and the identity he’s spent thirty years building.
In Brand New Friend, the writing is terrific, especially the spot-on descriptions of student life. The characters who invent themselves—both those who escape their past and who become frozen in it—are brilliant, especially as we get to see what happens to them over thirty years. The contemporary plot elements could have been pared back with, I think, very little loss. But either way, this is an excellent book and one I’d recommend to anyone who is interested in a thoroughly character-driven story with a side helping of thriller.
**I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
Friend. Liar. Killer?
BBC foreign correspondent Paolo Bennett is exiled to a London desk – and the Breakfast sofa – when he gets a call from Mark, a friend from university in eighties Leeds. Paolo knew Mark as a dedicated animal rights activist but now a news blog has exposed him as an undercover police officer. Then Mark’s former police handler is murdered.
Paolo was never a committed campaigner. He was more interested in women, bands and dreaming of a life abroad. Now he wonders if Mark’s exposure and his handler’s murder might be linked to an unexplained death on campus back when they were friends. What did he miss?
Paolo wants the truth – and the story. He chases up new leads and old friends. From benefit gigs and peace protests, to Whatsapp groups and mocktail bars, the world has changed, but Mark still seems the same.
Is Mark the spy who never went back – who liked his undercover life better than his own? Or is he lying now? Is Paolo’s friend a murderer?
I’m an author of (mostly) crime and suspense, living in Devon.
My crime novel, Brand New Friend, will be published on 5 June 2018.
I have written for BBC drama Doctors and have had short stories and articles published in various publications and anthologies, including Mslexia and Scotland on Sunday.
I mainly read crime and literary fiction with some non-fiction and am a recent convert to audiobooks.