Between Each Breath by Adam Thorpe
12/05/07, The Times
One can think only of a handful of pleasures to compare with the experience of being enveloped by the plushed interiors of Adam Thorpe’s classy prose and gliding along on his warmly purring, glitchless narrative rides, so it is with dismay one receives his latest, Between Each Breath, a self-styled love story, for this is no ordinary love story but Man, Woman and Child redivivus. Anyone remember that weepiest weepy of them all, written by Eric Segal, the emperor of schmaltz and author of Love Story? The similarities in plot are a miracle of coincidence: man is unfaithful to loving and beloved wife while alone abroad, returns home, few years later child resulting from that brief fling turns up on doorstep, marriage on the rocks, everything to lose.
Except this is Thorpe, one of our most fiercely intelligent and intellectual writers, so there are other concerns – the slow death of civilised society in England, the composition of contemporary classical music, the treacherously unstable equilibrium between art, money and compromise, among a slew of others – intercalated through the familiar story. The man in question is Jack Middleton, once anointed ‘one of Britain’s most promising composers’, but now stultifying in cosseted luxury in his marriage to the impossibly rich heiress, Milly du Crane, a posh, liberal planet-saver. A make-or-break commission for a piece for the opening of the Millennium Dome takes him to Estonia, the country of his revered composer, Arvo Pärt, for inspiration. There, he has a brief, intense (and luminously captured by Thorpe) affair with a waitress, Kaja, before waving goodbye and returning to the comforts provided by Du Crane wealth, a huge house on Willow Road, right on the edge of Hampstead Heath, being one such.
Shortly after his return, Milly loses their unborn son in a traffic mishap for which Jack is to blame significantly. Subsequent attempts, all frantic and desperate, at another pregnancy remain futile, driving a hole in the marriage. Meanwhile, composing recedes further and further away from Jack’s futile life. Then Kaja turns up from Estonia, with five-year old Jaan in tow, turning Jack’s life inside out. It never rains but it pours, so to time with this imminent explosion, Jack’s blind mother breaks her neck by falling off a window, not quite undeliberately. And if you still think disasters come in single spies, think again: the London Tube bombings have just happened.
On several occasions, Thorpe manages to put his finger on the pulse of something that beats truly and dangerously – the steady and irreversible uncohering of social contact, the ‘ashen, utterly leaden futility’ of England, the corporatisation of culture, the double-edged sword that is popularity or populism – and he can make your heart resonate to an edgy, disturbing rhythm. And his dinner parties are extraordinary set pieces, alembics of pure distilled vitriol. But it is disappointing to see how all the great scenes of recognition or conflict – such as the first meeting between Kaja and Jack in London – remain resiliently unalive while a scene of confrontation between Jack and Milly in their neighbour Edward’s garden is so excruciatingly bad that you feel like pulling the blanket over your head and shutting out the world. Part of the problem may be Jack himself – a gormless, spineless, pathetic little has-been – although Thorpe manages to circumvent this in the beautiful sections narrated by Jack that bookend the novel. But the novel’s final, pat equivalence of suffering/hardship and art is too easy, too laden with exhausted Romantic baggage to count for anything much and works to trivialise such an angry, despairing book.