Book Review: Pax Britannia: Unnatural History (Jonathan Green)
(The following is a review I wrote towards the beginning of the year; after sitting on it a while, I was to see it published in Scalpel Magazine. That magazine folded before the second issue, leaving this review homeless. I’ve not succeeded in getting it placed anywhere else so it’s going up here for the benefit of you lucky lot… lucky few, I should say.)
It’s a bit too James Bond, this.
Meet Ulysses Quicksilver: a gentleman, a dandy, a freelance agent of the Throne. In some quarters he might be considered a government bully boy, some secret agent hatchetman, a solver of unspecified problems – but here he is a debonair and dashing rogue with a distaste for the same authority to which he is unthinkingly subservient. So, yes, all a bit James Bond really. Which may or may not float your proverbial.
At the outset of Unnatural History our man Quicksilver has returned to London after being missing, feared dead, for a year. He arrives just in the nick of time, too, preventing a nervous, sweaty lawyer and his younger, less handsome and less protagonisty brother from claiming his home and property. These two unsavoury characters (and we’re left few opportunities to consider them anything but, the lawyer in particular being characterised by “small piggy eyes”, “flabby features”, and a vain attempt to hide a balding pate) are very rapidly turfed out by the clearly heroic Ulysses and his stolid, obedient ex-prizefighter butler, Nimrod. Ulysses, by way of comparison with his brother, possesses “a well-defined jaw-line”, has a “sparkling glint in his … eyes”, and is “the more handsome of the two”. Clearly. His manservant is blessed with “aquiline features”, “piercing sapphire eyes”, and “chiseled features” (the book gets an extra flaming sword out of five for its generous extra features).
At this point I can’t help but be reminded of Jason Hamilton, the fictional travel writer of TV sitcom Black Books. Quicksilver has the worldly smugness of this know-it-all self-styled explorer, along with his easy charm and assumption of privilege. It doesn’t help matters that Quicksilver actually is an action hero. And this, I think, indicates one of the core problems with Unnatural History. It’s utterly po-faced; treating its subject matter with slavish seriousness, despite the same subject matter being a variation on pulpish hero tales that are so hoary they are parodied by television comedy. Cutting edge this is not, and I’d be surprised if anyone found themselves identifying with a heroic bore like Quicksilver.
But moving on from this paper-thin protagonist, events elsewhere in London are taking a turn for the weird. Over at the Natural History Museum, a nightwatchman is brutally murdered in a break-in. He’s all a bit working-class-and-content-with-it, just like some unimaginative pleb out of an actual Victorian novel. Sadly, a British stiff upper lip is insufficient to save him from a somewhat brutal fate, but at least he was offed before he tugged his forelock at anyone.
Ulysses is put on the case the very next day by his government contact – with whom, of course, he shares a mutual dislike. At the scene of the crime he encounters Inspector Allardyce, a weaselly and stupid detective who resents his intellectual and social superior. This is inevitable. I am not entirely sure I’ve accounted for every last character, but just about everyone in the novel can have their moral fibre judged by whether or not they like Ulysses Quicksilver. Allardyce is the exception that proves the rule, showing his arse throughout the first two thirds of the novel and only being won round towards the end (after a ham-fisted attempt at character development that comes far too late to seem anything other than contrived).
Anyway, Quicksilver’s investigation into the Natural History Museum murder reveals a mysterious theft, and his search for answers leads him to a conspiracy at the heart of blah de blah blah. Suffice to say there are a great many exciting developments, packed in around a series of well-envisioned if somewhat hollow set pieces. There’s little tension, unfortunately, as Quicksilver is one of those heroes who is so capable, so utterly without flaw, that we never believe that they’ll do more than bumble about killing people until they figure out what to do next. It’s the spectacle of action and violence at the expense of suspension of disbelief, or caring overly much what happens.
The prose itself is at best serviceable, at worst overwritten and underpunctuated. Sentences like the following bit of monologue abound:
“And Her Imperial Majesty’s jubilee will not only be a celebration of 160 years of her noble reign and wise rule but will act as a starting point for a new Imperial age the like of which the world has never seen, as we approach the dawning of a new millennium.” [p126]
Count the comma. Then there’s the plain clumsy writing:
“Its scales were rough as sandpaper and one cheek was grazed from his collision with the creature.” [p114]
In context the meaning is clear, but nonetheless it’s not good writing.
Prose like that above abounds in both the narration and the dialogue. It feels breathless and often stumbles. Each time I picked up the book, it took ten or fifteen minutes before I could stop editing the text in my head and get on with the story. I do wonder if this was intended, at least in part, to come across as a bit Victorian; some kind of prose style that narrowly diverges from our own but retains a flavour of imperial stodginess. If so it doesn’t really work. Instead it sounds forced and flat.
But it’s not just this overcooked seriousness, the clumsy prose, and the stereotypes as old as the Empire itself (working class people are stupid and humble – didn’t you know?) that conspire to murder this novel. There’s also the apparent lack of authorial interest in any of the more interesting ideas that Pax Brittannia’s sources invite.
There are occasional tidbits flung the reader’s way – the aforementioned late-term attempt to develop Inspector Allardyce as an ideologically conflicted character, the steady ossification of the globe-spanning Empire, and the use of state terror for political motives – but these are window dressing. It’s a brushing-off of intellectual contemporaneousness, and when coupled with the near-total lack of irony this novel exhibits it appears merely lazy and derivative. Should it be possible today to write a novel that so willfully plumbs a history of colonialism, privilege, exploitation and prejudice without acknowledging any of this background? Empire has been divorced from context; it’s a monolithic institution that simply Is. And when the setting fails on such a fundamental level to convince, the story itself inevitably suffers.
The plot itself is passable, provided you can sink into the mechanistic progression of events and ignore the bit of your brain that’s picking at things. And I concede that the novel did provide me with a modicum of entertainment, but much of that was poking fun at it whilst reading. I’d like to think that this review helps bring some much-needed levity to the table, because it’s not provided by this shallow and humourless tale of pulp heroism.