Ned Beauman: When wild foxes come into town

By Stephen Jewell

Ned Beauman’s new novel, Glow, is being touted as an international conspiracy thriller for a new generation, writes Stephen Jewell.

Ned Beauman. Photo / Benjamin McMahon
Ned Beauman. Photo / Benjamin McMahon

After the dense structures and multiple period settings of his first two novels, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ned Beauman wanted to embrace a more straightforward, contemporary narrative with his latest book. Described as "an international conspiracy thriller for a new generation", Glow centres around Raf, who is embroiled in a global plot involving sinister corporations, an illicit drug trade and Burmese insurgents.

However, Beauman insists it wasn't his original intention to create a simpler structure.

"Questions about 'what kind of book did I set out to write?' imply a degree of strategic thinking that often doesn't take place," he says. "It has that kind of linear structure because with a thriller, for reasons of suspense and economy, it makes more sense to have it from just one point of view.

"One of the comparisons I have made is with Alfred Hitchcock's film North By Northwest, which is about a guy who gets caught up in stuff pretty much at random.

So there was no need for the same kind of time jumps or fractured points of view, although there are some flashbacks."

As for why he chose to explore the crime genre, Bowman cites similar caveats. "I wanted to write something about pirate radio because I felt that it hadn't been written about. I also wanted to write about corporate imperialism and private military corporations. And because both of those things apply to shady operations and there are likely to be some guns around in that situation, a thriller sounded like a natural form.

"But all of my books so far have had a balance of thriller and non-thriller elements. This one just happened to have the other elements stripped away because they would have been superfluous in this case."

Beginning with Raf encountering the enigmatic, half-Burmese Cherish at a rave at his local laundry, Bowman also plays down his decision to focus on the Southeast Asian country's expat population.

"I knew nothing about Burma before I started writing the book and I still know almost nothing about it," he says. "I chose Burma almost arbitrarily, because it just happened to fit. The book is no more a serious report on the political situation in Burma than From Russia With Love is a serious report on the political situation in the USSR. I did read a little bit about it but if you want to know more about it, there are plenty of much better researched and considered books than mine.

"As for the Burmese community in London, I've been to one Burmese restaurant in Edgware but apart from that I have no idea how many Burmese live in London. The book is not meant to be a political report on the real predicament of a migrant community. It's a thriller so its treatment of that topic is entirely frivolous."

London-based Beauman, 29, worked as a journalist for publications such as the Guardian, the New Statesman and Dazed and Confused before publishing his first novel Boxer, Beetle, in 2010. After his second book, The Teleportation Accident was long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, he was included in Granta's selection last year of the 20 best British novelists under 40.

Inspired by Beauman's youthful experiences living in Peckham, Glow was written in several cities, including Berlin, Istanbul, New York and London. "I only lived [in Peckham] for a couple of years so I certainly can't call myself a real south Londoner," says Beauman. "But those were my first two years living in London after I'd left home so they were very memorable. I've been out of the country for the past couple of years so I haven't been able to get back there that often."

As the book's cover indicates, London's rapidly expanding population of wild foxes play a crucial role in the unfolding story. "The flora and fauna is one of the things about the city that I feel the greatest fondness for," says Bowman. "If you live in Peckham, there's not many tubes so most of the time you have to get home on a night bus and from the top deck you can often see a fox roaming across the road. I find urban wildlife really interesting in general. New York, unfortunately, is not so well supplied with it, although in Berlin there's apparently plenty of foxes and even rumours of some wild boar making the occasional incursion into the city."

Glow (Sceptre $37.99) is out now.

- NZ Herald

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