#BookReview The Echo Chamber by John Boyne

The Echo ChamberAbout the Book

What a thing of wonder a mobile phone is. Six ounces of metal, glass and plastic, fashioned into a sleek, shiny, precious object. At once a gateway to other worlds – and a treacherous weapon in the hands of the unwary.

The Cleverley family live a gilded life, little realising how precarious their privilege is, just one tweet away from disaster. They are various degrees of catastrophe waiting to happen.

Together they will go on a journey of discovery through the jungle of the modern living, where carefully curated reputations can be destroyed in an instant. Along the way, they will learn how volatile, how outraged, how unforgiving the world can be when you step from the prescribed path.

Format: Paperback (528 pages)    Publisher: Penguin
Publication date: 12th May 2022 Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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My Review

John Boyne is one of the authors on my list for my Backlist Burrow reading challenge so it was serendipitous that The Echo Chamber was the book chosen for discussion at my book club this month. As is often the case, the book divided opinion with some club members finding it lacking in nuance or simply unable to put up with the unlikeable characters. However, quite a few of us – including myself – found it hilarious and very enjoyable.

I don’t believe The Echo Chamber is intended to be an in-depth exploration of the impact of social media. To me, it’s a satire in which the author pokes fun at various aspects of the modern age such as the rise of social media influencers, the scourge of online trolling and our growing dependence on electronic devices. It can also be seen as his response to the abuse he himself suffered on social media which saw him leave Twitter.  The book’s epigraph includes this quote by John Ronson from his book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. ‘The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche’.

To my mind, the members of the Cleverley family are clearly designed to be caricatures representing the worst of modern day society.  George, the head of the family, is a popular TV personality – or in his own words ‘a national treasure’. Although he believes himself to be liberal-minded he gets into a series of scrapes through his use of distinctly non-PC language on Twitter and in a broadcast interview.

George’s wife, Beverley is a celebrated – or so she would like to think – author of romantic fiction who employs a ghost to do the hard work of actually writing her books. She gets some of the funniest lines in the book. For example, she proudly recalls one of  her readers commenting on a recent book, ‘She said it reminded her of Wolf Hall. Just without all the boring historical bits’.

George and Beverley’s daughter, Elizabeth represents the nasty side of social media. She is addicted to her phone, suffers panic attacks when separated from it and is intent on increasing her followers on Twitter by any means possible.  At one point, whilst taking a break from trolling celebrities, she even engages in an argument with herself on Twitter.  What may be the greatest moment of her life comes when she gains that elusive blue tick on her Twitter account but disappointment soon follows.

My favourite character was the Cleverley’s eldest son, Nelson, who finds it easier to interact with other people when dressed in a uniform. His experiment with speed dating is one of the funniest scenes in the book. Other memorable characters are Pylyp, a Ukranian dancer, and his pet tortoise named after a Ukranian folk hero.

Each member of the family eventually finds themselves in hot water in a variety of bizarre ways and all of them are brought down to earth with a bump.

The Echo Chamber is certainly very different from the only other book I’ve read by John Boyne, All The Broken Places, although a glance at his backlist demonstrates the great variety in his writing. It’s rare a book makes me laugh out loud but The Echo Chamber did. In fact, I like to imagine John Boyne chuckling away to himself whilst writing certain scenes.  At over 500 pages, I did feel it ran out of steam a bit towards the end but it’s wickedly funny – with the emphasis on  ‘wicked’.

In three words: Funny, entertaining, satirical

John BoyneAbout the Author

John Boyne is the author of thirteen novels for adults, six for younger readers and a collection of short stories. His 2006 novel The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas has sold more than 11 million copies worldwide and has been adapted for cinema, theatre, ballet and opera. His many international bestsellers include The Heart’s Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky. He has won three Irish Book Awards, along with a host of other international literary prizes. His novels are published in over fifty languages. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview #Ad The New Life by Tom Crewe @ChattoBooks

The New LifeAbout the Book

Two Victorian marriages, two dangerous love affairs, one extraordinary partnership . . .

After a lifetime spent navigating his desires, John Addington, a married man, has met Frank, a working-class printer. Meanwhile Henry Ellis’s wife Edith has fallen in love with a woman – who wants Edith all to herself.

When in 1894 John and Henry decide to write a revolutionary book together, intended to challenge convention and the law, they are both caught in relationships stalked by guilt and shame.

Yet they share a vision of a better world, one that will expand possibilities for men and women everywhere. Their daring book threatens to throw John and Henry, and all those around them, into danger.

How far should they go to win personal freedoms? And how high a price are they willing to pay for a new way of living?’

Format: eARC (384 pages)                Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Publication date: 12th January 2023 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

The ‘New Life’ which John Addington and Henry Ellis are in search of is one of social, personal and sexual freedom where, in particular, homosexuality (referred to as ‘sexual inversion’) is no longer illegal but accepted as a natural variant of human sexuality. They begin writing a book together intended to demonstrate their case through a combination of scientific evidence and personal case studies. This collaboration takes place mostly via correspondence with the two men hardly ever meeting.

Their motivations for writing the book are different. For Henry, it’s more an intellectual pursuit in line with his beliefs in the need for a more open society in which less conventional relationships – like his marriage to Edith, which is unconsummated – can flourish.  For John it’s deeply personal as his life has been one of hiding his homosexual desires behind the facade of a conventional marriage. He feels he has got to the point where he can do that no longer.

What the two men have in common is the existence of a third party in their marriages. John has taken as his lover a young working class man called Frank, eventually installing him in the family home under the guise of him being his secretary. It doesn’t fool anyone, not least John’s wife, Catherine. Henry’s wife, Edith, has a close friend named Angelica with whom she spends much time since Edith and Henry live apart.

Given homosexuality is a criminal offence, both men are taking a great risk in publishing their book. This becomes even greater when, shortly before publication, Oscar Wilde is arrested, tried and convicted of gross indecency with men and sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour.  John and Henry are presented with a dilemma. Should they go ahead and publish because they believe in the principles they are espousing or should considerations of safety for themselves and their families prevail?  John is determined to press ahead with publication regardless of the consequences, even if it means the end of his marriage and public disclosure of his homosexuality with everything that might follow from that.

I found Henry quite a tragic figure. Painfully shy, he is touchingly devoted to his wife and believes fervently in the principles of personal freedom. John, on the other hand, although clearly deeply unhappy, seemed to me to be thoroughly self-absorbed. I could understand his desire to be true to himself but he just seemed so oblivious to the impact of his crusade on other people, including Frank, the man he professes to love, who also risks imprisonment if the nature of their relationship is revealed.

More than anything my sympathies were with John’s wife, Catherine. Having silently tolerated her husband’s homosexuality whilst bringing up their three daughters, she has to put up with him bringing his lover into their household and now faces the prospect of the family’s public disgrace. I definitely couldn’t blame her for coming to the conclusion that enough is enough. ‘I am too tired. I have spent so long in fear for you. Fearing with you, or so it once seemed. I have dreaded your disgrace, your being made to suffer – I have ached with the dread of it. It has made me old. But you are not frightened now. You wish to take greater and greater risks. That is your business. You may do it on your own.’

I think the author is particularly good at depicting the erotic charge between John and Frank, and the release John feels at finally being able to express freely his sexual desires. Much of the writing is in keeping with the style of the period in which the book is set but there are occasional flashes of more unrestrained descriptive prose. ‘They walked, fitting in the cracks and gaps that opened between the men and women on the streets. Beneath buildings black as slate, unblemished stone showing like rubbings of chalk. With the traffic, that surged and stalled, slipped and rushed; that strained and rolled and chanted and drummed, that clapped and dashed its rhythms on the road.’

The New Life is an intricate, detailed and thought-provoking exploration of the search for sexual freedom and equality in Victorian Britain.  It’s quite an intense read, a little slow to get going and does contain some sexually explicit scenes (not least the bravura opening chapter) but is clearly the work of a talented author.

My thanks to Chatto & Windus for my review copy via NetGalley.

In three words: Thought-provoking, intense, assured

Tom CreweAbout the Author

Tom Crewe was born in Middlesbrough in 1989. He has a PhD in nineteenth century British history from the University of Cambridge. Since 2015, he has been an editor at the London Review of Books, to which he contributes essays on politics, art, history and fiction.

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