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Book Review

The Rivals

ALEX CLARK investigates Blake Morrison's creepy tale of masculine rivalry

How long one can live happily on a diet of crumbs from the rich man's table before exploding with rage and resentment is the question that animates Blake Morrison's creepy and disturbing novel. It's played out against the ostensibly benign setting of a country weekend during which two couples meet, after a gap of some years, to renew the bonds of friendship and enjoy an interlude of bucolic relaxation. Even in real life, such occasions are rarely the simple social exchanges we might wish or pretend them to be: the extending and accepting of largesse is often involved, the reinforcement of an unspoken hierarchy thickened by the nuances of past personal history and the irrepressible concerns of the present day. But in fiction, a situation so open to complication provides the novelist with the perfect opportunity to run riot through themes of rivalry, jealousy, class tension and hidden desire; and Morrison does not shirk that opportunity.

He begins with the names of the couples: the affluent, expansive, metropolitan Moores, Ollie and Daisy who extend an invitation to an East Anglian bank holiday idyll to the Goades, already sounding as if they might welcome temporary liberation from their provincial backwater, overloaded public sector jobs and constrained finances. But from the outset, Ian Goade, our narrator, and his wife Em have reservations about the prospect: have the Moores simply been let down by some classier friends? Will they find themselves, as once happened at a glitzy party, shunted to one side with the hired help? Unable to resist the lure of the elegance and luxury they imagine will be on offer, they decide to risk it.

But Morrison has rather more to say on the subject of friendship, and decides to say it via that most unsettling of mouthpieces, the unreliable narrator. Ian, it emerges in deliberately measured doses of self-explication, is leaving behind more than the humdrum routine of a primary school teacher. There is the matter of the tribunal he must face on his return, convened after he physically disciplined a child and further overshadowed by possible allegations of racism; the "playing on websites" that alludes darkly to a gambling habit veering out of control; and his unease and silence in the face of Em's plans to have children. And then there are the disquieting references to past lapses in control: episodes of voyeurism, his casually recounted story of hitting a prostitute who hassled him, the way in which Em says, reassuringly, "You hardly ever lose your temper these days".

What he is not able to leave in Ilkeston, however, is the problem of Ollie, the suave university friend who stole Daisy from him and has, in the process, consigned him to a life he cannot escape. When Ian is presented, courtesy of an impulsive bet, with the chance to best his rival for good and clear his debts at the same time, the "last weekend" comes to have the feel of a day of reckoning.

Morrison's plot is not, it must be said, especially sophisticated; the image of two men, at least one of whom is probably insane, slugging it out on the golf course is clearly schematic and the novel's denouement hardly impossible to predict. But he does a terrific job of keeping the reader consistently intrigued by the strange interdependency of Ian and Ollie's relationship and the extent to which Ollie is a version of Ian who has, by circumstances of birth and luck (as Ian's obsession with betting underlines), got away with it. As our knowledge of Ian's dangerous delusions increases, so too does our suspicion of Ollie: has he really, as he claims, been diagnosed with terminal cancer? What are we to make of his insistence that he has brought the party to the very spot where his father died in a freak accident? And don't we find him as easy to dislike as Ian does?

At the novel's conclusion, it is the wives who are left to pick up the pieces, and it's tempting to conclude that Morrison has little patience for the byways of male friendship that he set himself to explore. But a closer reading might suggest a more complex sympathy for two men struggling, in different ways, under the burden of masculinity and searching desperately for a way to be released from it.


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