Book review: Fallout

By Elizabeth Day

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Sadie Jones leaves us wanting the story to carry on. Photo / Charlie Hopkinson
Sadie Jones leaves us wanting the story to carry on. Photo / Charlie Hopkinson

The blurb on the front cover of the proof version of Fallout, the new novel by Sadie Jones, informs us that it is a book "of stinging intensity and emotional depth". So far, so commercial - and, having read it, I'm sure Fallout will sell by the bucketload. It certainly deserves to.

Though Jones' fourth novel is indeed both of these things, it is also, crucially, incredibly well written. In fact, Fallout - which is set against the backdrop of a 1970s London radical theatre group - is written with a precision and a level of descriptive subtlety that puts her up there with Britain's foremost novelists. I can't help but feel that if she had been born Samuel Jones she would already be considered on a par with Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan.

The thing about Jones is that she's not afraid to tell a cracking good story. Her novels, including her debut, The Outcast, for which she won the Costa first novel prize, and the excellent Small Wars, are defined by their tightness of plot and pace, by the depth of understanding she shows for her characters. As a result, it can be easy to overlook her stylistic talent because she refuses to draw attention to it at the cost of our narrative involvement.

Fallout is no exception: it traces the intertwined lives of up-and-coming playwright Luke Kanowski, who comes to London determined to write a hit and to escape his unhappy upbringing in the northeast of England, and Nina Jacobs, a brittle, beautiful young actress with the worst kind of stage mother. Into this mix is thrown Paul, an aspiring theatre producer, and his girlfriend, Leigh.

Like all of Jones' previous books, the narrative is wholly engrossing but this novel shows a writer at the peak of her powers, displaying an innate capacity to convey the entirety of a period, a place or a feeling in a single sentence, throwing the words almost casually on to the page. Sometimes, you find yourself rereading a passage simply for the joy of squeezing more out of it.

Jones writes about "the fresh, sharp concrete, the chipped plaster of the scrabbling city" in the late 60s and the way, after rainfall, there is "a gleam on the black railings; sunshine over the cracks". The music of the era "was splitting its skin with every hour".

The unexplained absence of a lover is "nothing else. Just the waiting. Not work, not sleep. Just the gap she cut from him".

Jones makes it seem effortless. But, of course, it isn't. Fallout is crafted with a pared-back delicacy and attention to detail that shows an author determined to do better with every sentence. And, at the same time, there is an intensity of focus, a merciless yet empathetic gaze directed towards each of the main characters that ensures we care deeply about each of them. There is charismatic Luke, who is never as mature as he thinks he is; gentle, stolid Paul; feisty, proto-feminist Leigh; damaged, difficult Nina who protects herself by pushing away the things she can't control and marries disastrously to a controlling theatre producer who treats her badly because she doesn't believe she deserves any more than unhappiness.

The minor characters are brilliantly drawn even though they often only make the briefest of appearances, such as Elaine Cross, a Hollywood actress spied at a party "enthroned in the wicker chair, alone. Her enormous blond hair floated against the upright-fretted fan, apparently arrested in wind-tousled movement".

It's only at the end that you realise the whole novel has been meticulously constructed to resemble a play itself: a stage set on which the characters have been moved about and our disbelief successfully suspended.

Jones' gift - like all great writers - is to leave us wanting so desperately to believe that the story will continue without us once the scenery has been cleared away.

Fallout by Sadie Jones (Chatto & Windus $36.99).

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