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Godwin by Joseph O’Neill review – unmissable edge-of-your-seat drama

Godwin by Joseph O’Neill review – unmissable edge-of-your-seat drama

Joseph O’Neill broke out with his third novel, Netherland, which made the Booker longlist in 2008 and was ecstatically reviewed in the New Yorker by James Wood, whose praise made it that summer’s hot book, propelling him into the literary A-list. But come autumn, O’Neill was the fall guy in Zadie Smith’s influential essay Two Paths for the Novel, which contrasted the smoothness of his post-9/11 scenario (“perfectly done … that’s the problem”) with the edgier experiment of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, branding Netherland an antiquated example of “a breed of lyrical realism [that] has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked”.

Although his next novel, The Dog (2014), about a New York attorney in Dubai, widely seen as a Netherland minus, was also Booker longlisted, O’Neill seemed to recede from view almost as suddenly as he’d emerged. So much the better, perhaps: his exceptional new novel, Godwin, coming 10 years after his last, would seem to represent time well spent. It somehow wrings edge-of-your-seat drama from the unlikely subject of the murky office politics dividing a technical writers’ co-op in pre-Trump Pittsburgh – and as if that doesn’t sound improbable enough, O’Neill splices that story with an equally unlikely saga involving a transcontinental hunt to snap up a gifted young footballer in west Africa.

The chase kicks off when Mark Wolfe, a thirtysomething failed scientist now writing grants for big pharma, is contacted from London by his estranged half-French half-brother, Geoff, breathlessly explaining that, in a bid to set up as a football agent in London, he’s paid $5,000 to an Ivorian middleman for three months’ “exclusive access” to footage of a young player known as Godwin. “I’m not saying he’s as good as Messi. I’d never say that. But he’s like him,” says Geoff, pleading for Mark to help him find the boy. “You’re the cleverest person I know … If you can’t find him, no one can.”

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Mark, one of the novel’s two narrators, fully understands that the proposition is utterly bananas, but he’s at a low moment after a bust-up at the writing collective where he works. The book opens with the voice of his senior colleague, Lakesha – Godwin’s other narrator – and her mood of retrospect makes clear that Mark’s story won’t end well (“Everyone knew him as Wolfe”); but the pinball momentum of his point-of-view sections pushes that to the back of our minds as we’re kept agog by his ill-conceived trip across the Atlantic, where flaky Geoff – perpetually stringing Mark along – leaves him no option but to spend his first night in Europe kipping on a treadmill in Walsall.

O’Neill once told an interviewer that he reckons “plot happens most of all at the level of the sentence … as a reader, I want to start a sentence and then be surprised by what happens to it.” He happily flouts the writerly edict to show rather than tell – Godwin is all telling, its drama generated by an overlay of perspectives à la Joseph Conrad as its narrators recount nested monologues from various interlocutors, above all Jean-Luc, a wily French football scout whose claim to fame rests on working with the young Didier Drogba.

The quest for Godwin – a male midlife-crisis scenario doubling as wild goose chase – raises thorny questions of people trafficking and postcolonial legacies, as well as fuelling mass mania among the various rapacious parties seeking a cut. If O’Neill is in his element here, lifting the lid on the murky fixers and footmen circling big money, it’s to his credit that Lakesha’s portion of the book is equally engrossing, as we’re caught up in every twist and turn of an ill-conceived coup to oust her as co-lead of her writers’ collective (his decision to write in the voice of a black woman raised in poverty is, you suspect, a direct response to Smith’s diagnosis of what she called his “class/race anxiety”).

O’Neill’s storytelling here has an enthralling fireside quality, ushering us with deceptive simplicity into a labyrinth of motive and desire, breathtaking betrayals and artfully twined threads. A book to sink into, in other words, and one not to be missed.

Source: theguardian.com