Well Downstream from Canary Wharf

Lorna Sage

  • Acts of Mutiny by Derek Beavan
    Fourth Estate, 280 pp, £14.99, January 1998, ISBN 1 85702 641 1

Derek Beavan burst on the scene four years ago with his own bold brand of palimpsest history in Newton’s Niece, a wonderfully circumstantial novel about magic in the new age of science. Real people, from Newton to Swift, Handel, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Mrs Manley, mingled with imaginary ones, not least the eponymous narrator of the title him/herself, a time-traveller from a late-20th-century mental hospital who switches gender in the process. Acts of Mutiny is equally history-obsessed, but this time Beavan doesn’t have to ride a time-machine. We’re well within the world of living memory, in the late Fifties, travelling on board ship to Australia, as Beavan himself did as a boy of 11 back then, according to his publisher’s handouts. There are no real-life historical celebrities either, unless you count the secret cargo, the nuclear device in the ship’s hold, that notorious Fifties character, The Bomb. Nonetheless, it’s again a novel shaped and determined by the idea that there is always ‘another history’ that has been suppressed. For the very liner that this fictional boy Ralph sailed on has gone missing from the official records. And so have whole episodes from his own memory. This is the narrator as male hysteric: middle-aged Ralph sounds dry and affectless to begin with, but that’s just a symptom. He’s a Falklands War veteran who knows about traumatic stress disorder first-hand, having suppressed and later recovered his memories of escape from his burning ship. We first meet him when he attends his father’s funeral, and goes back to the old house ‘downstream of the City, downriver of the old Thames barrier ... snow clouds heaping up over the Isle of Dogs ... my growing up here was an unbroken stream, brown as varnish, leading inevitably to the sea.’ It’s characteristic of Beavan’s style that the shades and resonances of this description are almost immediately jettisoned. His is a prodigal talent: it’s as if he finds fine writing too easy, second nature, when it is not nature that interests him exactly.

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