2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
England is haunted. Everybody knows that. It's what explains the ongoing massive popularity of everything from Jane Austen's drawing rooms to Bertie Wooster's London clubs to the smell of tobacco still lingering along Baker Street to Patrick O'Brian's wooden ships and iron men. England is haunted by its history, its literature and its culture, by the memory of all that was and could be again.
Certainly Brian Marley is haunted --- with a name like Marley, he'd almost have to be. James Hawes's new novel, SPEAK FOR ENGLAND, begins with that haunting --- not with Brian Marley's miserable life, or the cultural excesses of Tony Blair's Cool Britannia, or even with the fantastic tale of the survivors of a long-ago plane crash eking out an existence on the high plains of New Guinea.
Marley's ghost is that of a mean-spirited Army officer, a Coldstream Guards version of R. Lee Ermey, if you will. He appears to Marley from inside his head, a disembodied voice. Marley, you see, is stranded on a reality TV show, "Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million," a shameless rip-off of "Survivor" that plants its contestants in the New Guinea rain forest and leaves them with nothing but satellite TV cameras to illustrate their slow descent into madness. Marley is a 43-year-old divorced (and concomitantly depressed) teacher, the last person you'd ever expect to be prepared for such a thing, and he is dropped into the wilds without so much as a Swiss Army knife. The program --- Marley himself describes it as a "stupid, crass, moneymaking competition for idiots" --- turns out to be sadistic enough to make "Fear Factor" look like "Romper Room." Under any normal circumstances, Marley would run screaming for the helicopters that ferry out the losing contestants. This is where the haunting comes into play, and it keeps Marley alive --- although not what you would call sane --- through the show's filming, and past its disastrous end.
Marley eventually survives his ordeal and links up with the survivors of a 1958 plane crash who settled --- they call it "The Colony" --- on a high New Guinea rampart, safe from roving bands of savage aboriginal fighters. Here, the survivors have maintained a simulacrum of 1950s English society under the patriarchal rule of The Headmaster --- the Colony is run along the lines of Eton or Rugby, with side trips to kill the odd wild boar or nomadic native, all done with a stiff upper lip. As the colonists haven't been rescued, the general opinion of the Colony is that England has been destroyed in some nuclear exchange or other --- and that they are the only remnant of a lost civilization. When Marley wanders into their camp, delirious and amnesiac after his ordeal, the Colony is alternately overcome with hope at the possibility of rescue and frustration at his inability to communicate precisely what, if anything, has been going on at Home.
This brief plot synopsis makes SPEAK FOR ENGLAND sound somewhat grim. Not so! The novel is a comic gem, casting a satiric glance over the long range of modern English history, skewering everything from the Falklands war to soccer fandom to the BBC. Think Monty Python with a Tom Wolfe flair. The focus of the novel, of course, is Marley's story and that of the Colony, but the action frequently shifts back to conversations commenting on the whole thing --- from the oversexed television producers who started the show, to Marley's would-be girlfriend and her Argentinian war-hero father, to the back rooms of Number Ten Downing Street. Hawes has a great ear not only for dialogue but for the utter un-self-consciousness of the way people talk when they're sure they are not being overheard and don't give a damn.
The one turnoff for the American reader is the way SPEAK FOR ENGLAND absolutely wallows in nostalgia for early-sixties British pop culture --- understandable and arguably necessary. (It can be countered by inserting your own favorite pop-culture references from your background, no worries.) This is a fine piece of satiric craftsmanship, complete with a warning about the dangers of nostalgia and how even a beneficial haunting can be frightening.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Brian Marley is his own harshest critic. Almost forty, his life is the epitome of mediocrity, teaching English to foreigners and seeing his three-year old son on visitation days. When Brian is approached by a producer/acquaintance to appear on a British reality show, Brit Pluck, Green Hell, Two Million, where six contestants will be stranded in the jungles of Papua, New Guinea, he seizes the opportunity.
As shocking to him as the other contestants, Brian outlasts everyone, his final challenge to spend one more week alone on the island. At the end of his physical resources and his tether, sure that death awaits, Marley is filming a final message to his son when he falls from a cliff. When he wakes up, he is no longer surrounded by the fetid jungle, but safe in the well-ordered camp of the survivors of the 1958 crash of an airplane, a De Havilland Comet IV, en route to a huge Commonwealth Public Schools Jamboree. The group has been stranded in New Guinea for over fifty years awaiting rescue, their enclave hidden from surveillance by low-lying clouds. Under the leadership of Headmaster Quartermain, the colony has fared admirably, establishing a daily protocol. The only escape route from camp is a pass that leads to a swamp, but the local tribe tends to snap up strays and cannibalize them.
In this place, time stands still, out of touch with current events or the direction of English politics. It is into this half-century old mindset that Marley arrives, his memory addled by the fall, snippets of memory taken out of context and misinterpreted by his new friends. But the tepid, socially inept Marley is a different man in the able hands of Georgina Harcourt, who takes him under her wing, prompting his recollections. Released from his stultifying past, an uninhibited Brian basks in newfound masculinity, reluctant to release his recent history. Eventually remembering, Brian is lacerated by the truth of his reality, "his poverty, his non-status, his endless failures, his entire lack of charisma and drive, his pathetic attempts at parenthood, his useless car."
Hawes takes a satirical approach to this "everyman" thrust into the spotlight, a newcomer in a colony that has lived by their wits awaiting rescue, their society bound by the rigid control of a leader who has resorted to unorthodox means to ensure the safety of his charges. This insular society has lived on the erroneous suppositions of a country on the brink of world war and advancing Communism, shocked to discover the changes wrought in their absence. Not to worry, after the rescue everyone is a star, Headmaster Quartermain readily accepted into a world in dire need of his extraordinary vision.
Meanwhile, Marley grapples with the sponsors of the reality show for the money he believes he has won, agents wheel and deal for book and movie rights and Brian is a magnet for anyone who has ever known him, however peripherally. The great PR machine is in motion, grinding out images and interviews, spinning fictions. Caught in the middle, Marley is a catalyst for the greatest news story in years, but soon relegated to his former ineptitude, a bumbling fool who grabbed an opportunity for wealth and his fifteen minutes of fame, only to question which reality is really the nightmarish jungle. Luan Gaines/2005.