The Innocent

Even though London and the South-East, David Szalay's prize­winning debut, was set in the early part of this decade, the smoke-filled pubs and snooker halls his characters inhabited already gave it the feel of a historical novel. The Innocent is a historical novel, too, set during the cold war.

As the Fischer-Spassky chess match plays on the radio, Aleksandr, an ex-KGB agent, ponders his past - specifically his meeting with a concert pianist accused of treachery. It is with the small but heartbreaking legacies of that visit that he still struggles to reconcile himself.

With its array of different voices, its use of diary entries, radio commentary, reports and its obsessive historical contextualising, one might have expected this to be a big book, dealing with big themes against the backdrop of big events (beside the smaller tragedies). But in fact, it is slight, barely more than a novella. And there are so many good ideas here, and such good writing, that The Innocent feels somehow undernourished: just a thumbnail sketch of what might have been.

This article first appeared in the 26 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, New York / London