South of the River
by Blake Morrison
In London, where Blake Morrison's new novel is largely set, the phrase 'South of the River' is something of an insult. No one powerful, rich or cool would be seen dead anywhere near areas such as Streatham, Brixton or Croydon, and certainly not anyone as invested in being as powerful, rich and cool as Tony Blair. The former prime minister may seem to have bought every expensive house in England, but none would ever be South of the River. And Blair - or rather, Blair's Britain - is at the heart of Morrison's novel. Opening on the night New Labour sweeps to power in 1997, it spends five years following the lives of several characters: a likeable buffoon called Nat who is a failed playwright; Nat's sensible, advertising executive wife Libby; journalist Harry, who sniffs out racism even when it doesn't exist; and Nat's uncle Jack, a right-wing fox-hunting fanatic whose marriage is in decline. Told in concise, witty episodes, the tone is lightly satirical even when the subject matter (death, racism, misogyny, violence, hypocrisy) is sombre. Admittedly, there are moments when Morrison's attempt to write the Great British Novel exceeds his grasp. But this is a funny, honest and readable evocation of recent history.