Four years before A Lonely Man opens, its main character, Robert Prowe, published a book of short stories. The book was an unexpected success, and Robert moved from London to Berlin with his Swedish wife and their two young daughters. Now his agent and publisher are waiting for him to finish the novel that he has assured them is well under way. It is, in fact, not even started: childcare, self-doubt and a lack of ideas keep him from making any progress.
A Lonely Man is Chris Power’s debut novel. His previous book, Mothers (2018), was a well-received collection of short stories. Robert’s reflection on his own unnamed collection, as well as the near-identity of “Prowe” and “Power”, encourage the reader to wonder about similarities between Robert and his creator: “The stories in his first book had… come from episodes in his own life and anecdotes told to him by friends, family, and strangers he had met while travelling. People he had been stranded with; got drunk or high with… He could see now that the book was filled with the longing and disappointment that, without him realising it at the time, had been the dominant currents in his life.”
The connection between a writer and those he writes about is at the centre of A Lonely Man. When Robert meets Patrick, another British writer living in Berlin, he glimpses a possible subject for his own novel. Patrick is a ghostwriter who was, until recently, working on the incendiary autobiography of a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin. (In Vanyashin’s words: “This book will be a blade, and I want it in Putin’s arse right up to the hilt.”) Before Patrick could learn what the oligarch had on Putin, Vanyashin was found hanging from an oak tree on his English estate. Although the coroner ruled the death was suicide, Patrick is convinced that it was murder. He is also convinced that the murderers are now watching him.
Is Patrick making this up? Is he deluded? Robert remembers the unresolved deaths of Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Berezovsky, but he doesn’t know enough about Russian politics to judge the likelihood of Patrick’s claims. At least at first, he doesn’t see any reason to believe that Vanyashin was murdered, and the idea that Patrick himself is in danger seems paranoid or self-important. Robert’s scepticism is not entirely unmotivated: believing that Patrick’s story is a fiction makes it easier for Robert to use it as fiction. He starts writing a novel about the relationship between Patrick and Vanyashin. Though he’s not sure how much he likes or trusts Patrick, Robert cultivates a friendship with him, one in which he encourages him to talk, and hopes that the voice recorder in his pocket will pick up the other man’s words.
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From the relationship between the two writers, Power develops a tense and unsettling narrative, part John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and part Janet Malcolm’s 1990 study of the ethics of journalism, The Journalist and the Murderer. Sections of A Lonely Man, describing Patrick’s interactions with Vanyashin, turn out to be sections from Robert’s novel, so that the reader can’t be sure how much derives from Robert’s imagination. Another layer of uncertainty comes from the small, strange things that start to happen in Robert’s life: an always-closed window in his apartment is found open; his alarm goes off in the middle of the night; a man stares fixedly at Robert and his daughter on a train.
Robert and Patrick’s meetings are sporadic and difficult to arrange. Patrick sometimes stops replying to Robert’s texts, or isn’t where he says he’ll be. Robert, no matter how much he longs to immerse himself in the other man’s story, has family obligations that keep him away from Patrick and sometimes unexpectedly take him out of Berlin, as when he travels to London to attend the funeral of Liam, a friend and former colleague ten years younger than Robert, who died by suicide. Power’s plain style, direct and precise, allows him to move easily between the different storylines while conveying a noirish moral ambiguity.
The chapter set in London is a moving portrayal of bewilderment and grief. It also contains disturbing resonances with Patrick’s story, and to Robert’s relationship with Patrick. Liam, like Vanyashin, was found hanged. Liam, like Patrick, was evasive and solitary. He and Robert used to take drugs and go to clubs together. But how much did Robert truly know Liam? What did their relationship do for either of them?
A Lonely Man is a gripping novel that balances political intrigue with personal danger. It is also a melancholy portrayal of male solitude and community. Power gives us not just one lonely man but many, spread out across Europe and offering one another guarded, intermittent, and ultimately insufficient friendship.
A Lonely Man
Faber & Faber, 320pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 28 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The new battle of ideas