Sunday, July 27, 2014

John Le Carre's A Delicate Truth

John Le Carre is a writer who nearly always gets great reviews for what, in the end, are often pretty mediocre books. A Delicate Truth however isn't a bad book and at 83 years old I marvelled at Le Carre's economic and skillful plotting and his nimble use of metaphor and simile (at least in the first 50 pages or so). The John Le Carre of today is a less patient writer than the master who brought us Tinker Tailor 40 years ago, but his impatient breathless prose is more in tune with our tech savvy distracted age than the languid wordsmithery of the Smiley books. I bought A Delicate Truth at Dubai airport and had read it by the time we landed in Melbourne, which is a tribute to Le Carre's power to hold the reader's attention and make those pages turn.  
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A Delicate Truth is about an "extraordinary rendition" attempt gone wrong in the British Crown Colony of Gibraltar which leads to the death of an African asylum seeker and her child. For the Americans who botch the operation it's just one of those things that happen, but for the Brits involved it's a moral disaster that poisons all of their lives. It's an effective story device and I liked the temporal and POV shifts and the ruthless analysis of what guilt does to a certain class of man. 
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Where A Delicate Truth falls down is in its didacticism and dialogue. Le Carre hates Tony Blair, New Labour, Americans (especially Republican Americans) and loves stiff upper lip One Nation Tories of the old school. A writer is allowed to like and hate whomever he wants but when his hatreds infect the text and he starts banging on his drum it can become wearisome. As for dialogue, well I know its heresy to suggest it, but I think Le Carre has always had a tin ear for dialogue. His experience has been limited by his background. He has largely sequestered himself in a farm in Cornwall for the last 50 years and his formative years were spent at boarding school, Oxford, Eton (where he taught classics) and then MI5. His Englishmen often talk like characters from PG Wodehouse's golden era or occasionally like characters cribbed from an episode or two of Eastenders; his Americans have a tendency to be unsophisticated Bible thumping simpletons and in one hugely embarrassing chapter in A Delicate Truth he has an Ulster-born RUC policewoman (a Protestant who is called Brigid no less!) who talks like a cross between Jamie Oliver & Lily Allen.
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Still A Delicate Truth is a fine airport novel that will keep you entertained on a long haul flight. If you've read Le Carre's last 3 books you'll know exactly what happens at the end but if you haven't I won't spoil it for you now.