Adrift in an aimless world

2008-05-28 00:00

In the Same Space is an impressive debut novel by Pietermaritzburg-born writer, M. Blackman.

Not without literary precedents, the protagonist, 28-year-old Nicholas Sunderland, is adrift in contemporary London. Uncommitted, without any tangible goals and certainly no evident dreams, he lives in a seedy bedsit, accepts unchallenging, random and precarious employment and spends much of his time, barely solvent, in insalubrious pubs and on the London Underground. He is not even interested in relationships and, when he finds himself in one, his failure to commit has consequences.

Nick’s apathy and ennui have been apparent for some years. However, there are hints that suggest an educated background and former employment of a higher order. He is physically attractive, intelligent and quick-witted and there is occasional evidence of an interest in art and literature. Evasive, he seldom reveals anything about himself, a fact which gives him a sense of mystery and arouses curiosity not only among those with whom he interacts but also in the reader. Sophie, the girl with whom he might have found meaning, likens him to the character played by Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven — “A drifter with a sense of humour and a certain almost melancholic reticence”. And she pointedly gives him a copy of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying to read.

Like Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Blackman’s novel begins with a reference to the protests, scheduled in London and cities world wide on Saturday, February 15, 2003, against the invasion of Iraq. While the progress of the war is monitored in snatches of pub conversations, fleeting television footage, newspaper reports and a passing reference to the threat of explosive repercussions in major Western localities, like London, it remains peripheral, essentially contextualising the novel rather than affecting the lives or psyches of its characters.

McEwan’s Henry Perowne expresses ambivalence about war with Iraq; Nicholas Sunderland is typically unresponsive.

Blackman’s novel, written in the first person, in crisp, curt prose, is utterly contemporary and, unexpectedly, compelling. And the human condition that it explores — a sense of personal meaninglessness and the potential to self-destruct in a demanding, driven and seemingly demented world — has pertinence as well as academic interest.

Moira Lovell

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