The Island of Lost Souls
Martyn Bedford Bloomsbury, 384pp, £10.99
Martyn Bedford's sixth novel begins with as standardised a vision of urban dystopia as you're likely to find. Describing the capital city of a country at war, Bedford ticks off an itemised shopping list of urban misery: "Graffiti. Pigeon shit . . . The cancelled expressions on the faces." This passage sets the tone of a novel that may escape the city for a rural idyll, but never strays far from cliché.
The protagonist, 24-year-old Finn, is drifting unenthusiastically through life - a job in data processing, a girlfriend who is about to leave him. When he is served with his call-up papers, he looks set to drift apathetically off to war. But things pick up when a network of dissenters offers him the chance to escape the draft for a new life on the island of the book's title.
Bedford has a nice line in caricature: Finn's encounter with Mr Skins, a cream-suited drugs-runner who combines the traits of about four different Bond villains, is one of the book's most enjoyable episodes. Skins may be overwritten - he is so extravagantly nasty that he has his daughter's favourite puppy thrown into his crocodile pit - but he's also a creation of cartoonish malevolence and is pitch-perfect for Bedford's pacy narrative.
Less welcome, however, are the clichés that surface when Finn arrives on the island. There he finds himself among an earnest, hippyish community - think Alex Garland's The Beach without the sexiness. Bedford's prose becomes in-creasingly mired in the New Age philo-sophising of the island's inhabitants: "It was a feminine land. A land of healing unobtrusive wisdom," muses one. You'd think this would be enough to send any sensible person straight back to the city, but Finn immerses himself even more deeply in the community.
Bedford also meditates at length on the book's major theme - grief. Several of the island's inhabitants are dealing with loss of some kind, and we have to put up with their dreary reflections. "It felt less climactic, more complicated - another stage in a process that had been unfolding within her. Towards absorbing Roop's absence into her life, instead of absorbing her life into his absence." At first I was tempted to applaud this as a well-judged spoof of bereavement platitudes, except that it turned out to be the novel's dominant tone, without even a hint of irony.
Thankfully, narrative doesn't entirely lose out to navel-gazing. Finn's idyll is threatened by the return of Mr Skins, and the novel builds to a climax of sorts. But Finn has become so immersed in mawkish reflection that, when he does find a way to what is supposed to be a redemptive blast of decisiveness, it feels like too little too late. And this is the problem with Bedford's novel: despite reaching for many of the right cult-fiction tropes, it ends up suffering from over-familiarity with another bestselling genre - self-help.