wed 22/05/2024

Andrew O'Hagan: Caledonian Road review - London's Dickensian return | reviews, news & interviews

Andrew O'Hagan: Caledonian Road review - London's Dickensian return

Andrew O'Hagan: Caledonian Road review - London's Dickensian return

Grotesque and insightful, O’Hagan’s broad cast of characters illuminates a city’s iniquities

Author Andrew O'Hagan dishes the dirt on London streetsCourtesy of Faber & Faber

Andrew O’Hagan’s new novel, Caledonian Road, feels very much intended to be an epic, or at the very least has designs on being a seminal work, documenting the modern (European) human condition. Character and storyline-rich, dense, and morally weighty, it looks set up to be a "state of the nation" contemporary chronicle.

Set roughly on the eponymous A5203, and elsewhere around London, the book’s main focus is the (quite clearly) doomed life of art critic and social parvenu, Campbell Flynn. As well as taking up the bulk of the narrative, he is the first character we encounter. It is a distinctly – and appropriately – off-putting start: he is too arch, too smug; his hubris is blindingly obvious. Flynn’s own wife sums it up nicely: “I have a sense of dread about you.” He drifts through a world of privilege, and through his eyes we see a weary parade of stereotypes, including the shrewish and prudish academic, Jennifer Mearns, who has gone so far as to declare war – in the name of climate justice – on waste paper baskets at the university where they both work as academics; or else we meet Flynn’s best friend, a particularly execrable Phillip Green-character, Sir William Byre, whose empire is built on dirty money and sweatshop workers.

Caledonian RoadCaledonian Road itself, representing Flynn’s own world, opens up with the introduction of individuals outside his usual milieu. In particular, we meet his student Milo Mangasha, a man with an axe to grind and the steely intelligence to destroy Flynn’s self-satisfied certainty. Flynn begins to crumble in small ways, and desperately seeks ways to re-establish his inflated sense of self: focusing, for instance, on his Glaswegian heritage (something he shares with O’Hagan); then seeking a feud with a sitting tenant; then exposing the horrendous flaws of the aristocratic society into which he has entered.

It’s a very hard thing to write a book about politics and the state of the nation without falling into cliché, but O’Hagan is able, cleverly, to use Flynn and others as a series of optics through which to make his commentary. Milo’s brother-in-law, Bozydar, is a people smuggler and petty criminal, supported by Yuri Bykov, dilettante son of the truly nasty Aleksander Bykov, a Russian oligarch who represents all that we chose to allow and ignore, propping up Britain with dirty money made at the expense of others in the post-Soviet wild west.

Another memorably gross figure is Flynn’s brother-in-law, Anthony, Duke of Kendal, a man who uses the new but handy "deep fake" excuse when captured on camera making vile racist comments. The fact that the Duke manages to use his not inconsiderable wealth and social standing (and proximity to the Firm) to weasel his way out of this, is a reminder of just how much Britain can excuse those with hereditary peerages. At times, this judgement and caricaturing can feel a tad heavy-handed, something underlined in part by O’Hagan’s rendering of Milo’s friendship group and the way that they speak in urban slang, but it never feels too embarrassingly right-on or forced.

Caledonian Road does takes a while to warm up, in part due to the sheer number of people in its roster, and in part because of the unpleasantness of their actions; but it is a deeply powerful and engaging book. It shows us the rot at the heart of our own society (in a memorable scene, someone argues about whether human life is worth more than manuscripts), but always keeps a sense of optimism that there might be a chance to correct some inequalities and force a better world in future. This is done, primarily, through the actions of Mangasha. He hacks accounts, siphoning off money to charities, and cracks open the corruption of the upper classes (both vieux and nouveau riche). He is the true centre of this book, a young mixed-race man who lost his mother to Covid-19 and the inequalities – racial and financial – that precipitated her death. Her end is told in a stunning passage towards the conclusion of the book, a reminder of the everyday suffering of those who can’t buy their way into or out of things, who are instead ruined by those who can.

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