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Sufferance by Charles Palliser review – a well-crafted, slow-burning novel

Sufferance by Charles Palliser review – a well-crafted, slow-burning novel

For readers of a certain age, Charles Palliser’s name is so deeply associated with his massive debut novel, The Quincunx, a literary mystery that was on every bedside table in the 1990s, that you would be forgiven for not knowing about his later work. Now he has published his sixth novel, Sufferance, which is his first book in more than a decade and only his second since the turn of the millennium.

The publication is good timing: Palliser’s novel shares some superficial similarities with last year’s Booker winner, Prophet Song – a family in crisis navigating an authoritarian regime – but is a more well developed and satisfying work. The slow escalation of pressure on its characters up to an extraordinary ending – all in 200 pages – shows the hand of an expert novelist.

The setting is an unnamed city in an unnamed time: no technology is named and the only entertainment is the “wireless”. A war has taken place, one apparently “briskly dispatched”, and the city has been divided into two zones. All this is told to us in an unruffled, reassuring tone by a middle-aged man, who is looking back on a difficult episode in his family’s life. “Things could so easily have been different, and if it had not been for a trivial remark, she might never have entered our lives.”

“She” is a schoolgirl who comes to stay with the man, his wife and daughters in the aftermath of the war. Her wealthy parents are stranded in the other zone of the city, their large house now empty but for a domestic servant. The family takes in the girl as an act of humanity, but our narrator admits to us that he is also hoping for reward: the girl’s father, who owns a department store, may employ him in his capacity as an accountant when he returns home.

That little admission is key – the man insists that “I have to be completely frank” – yet to the canny reader this sounds like a red flag from an unreliable narrator. Is he really telling us everything? Or do his candid confessions – like wishing one of his daughters was more like the girl they’ve rescued – conceal something else?

The whole story proceeds with these little turbulences, revelations of what lies beneath the surface of family life: his wife’s illness, his own professional difficulties. The book balances these internal tensions with the deteriorating conditions in the city, where the war turns out not to be over, and increasingly draconian laws are passed to limit the rights of a minority group that the occupying power, in perfectly Newspeakish terms, calls “the protected community”. Given the nature of these restrictions – from closing their businesses to making them wear badges in public – it’s not hard to see the historic parallels. And as the girl is one of this group, it adds an extra layer of horror to the tension her presence in the family has already created.

The plot advances with increasingly complex demands on the narrator – corruption, blackmail and more – and the pleasure lies in how immersed we become in his suffering, thanks to the finely detailed account of the agonies of his mind as he battles to overcome obstacle after obstacle. This exquisite account of the repercussions of the tiniest turn of fate can go only one way; and if the conclusion is all wrapped up a bit too quickly, given the methodical way we get there, it doesn’t matter much, as the pleasure lies mainly in the journey.

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Source: theguardian.com