The Pretender

David Belbin

Five Leaves


November 2008

Oh, I loved this book! I have read several of David Belbin’s young adult novels. Each of them has been readable and engrossing, but I don’t remember any one of them having quite the touch of class that the author manages to maintain throughout the length of this very literary mystery memoir, published by Five Leaves on their adult list.
Set at the turn of the 1990s, it is written in the voice of a nineteen-year-old with a talent for literary pastiche. The tone is perfectly pitched. A marvellous mix of confidence, embarrassment, sexual inexperience and adolescent audacity. It’s a voice most often encountered in short stories (Somerset Maugham, V. S. Pritchett) rather than novels, especially contemporary novels. It works perfectly here.
Mark discovers his power of pretending at school, when he writes a story in the style of Dickens, and the teacher accuses him of cheating. During a time-out year in Paris he finds himself faking an early Hemingway story and the die is cast.
From that point on (most of the book is played out in Soho, in the offices of a struggling literary review preparing for a special anniversary issue) Mark’s mind is preoccupied with the escalating consequences of his successive deceptions. He is drawn to almost farcical lengths when, on the very day of the author’s funeral in 1990, he sneaks into Roald Dahl’s writing shed to knock up an undiscovered Dahl treasure for the magazine to publish.
This is the closest Belbin comes to stretching reader credulity. Most of the authors mentioned are real. Belbin deploys his knowledge of the literary scene and circumstances surrounding their lives, and the peculiarities of their styles and working practices, to good and pleasing effect. His creation of a fictional author – James Sherwin -as the focus of the final fraud is convincing enough. The secondary characters are also well-drawn, especially Tony, the editor of the failing magazine, a poet who feels his own talent has been sacrificed to his endeavour, with no due appreciation coming his way.
Highly Recommended to readers who enjoy literary mysteries and don’t require dead bodies in their thrillers.

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