Not living up to its promise

The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) The possible model for the hero's family home
The Georgian House, Bristol (Wikipedia Commons) — the possible model for the family home of Inigo Bright (Brightstow was one early spelling of Bristol)

Christopher Wakling The Devil’s Mask
Faber and Faber 2011

Bristol was the English port that John Cabot sailed from to discover Newfoundland, and was a point of embarkation for the heroes of Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. It was also a key port in the slave trade, profiting for over a hundred years, until 1807, promoted by the Society of Merchant Venturers. It is a city I know well, having lived there for the best part of half a century, and so I was looking forward to reading this novel set there in 1810, a year after the opening of the Floating Harbour and a year before the Prince of Wales became Regent.

The Devil’s Mask certainly makes good use of Georgian Bristol as a backdrop to this tale of commercial shenanigans and casual inhumanity. The streets, the variety of buildings (merchant houses, coffee houses, speculative property developments) and the muddy and silted river Avon flowing through the city are all based on either real or typical topographical locations and to a large extent the novel captures the mix of genteel living and rank poverty that typified ports such as Bristol. However, The Devils’ Mask doesn’t at all convey a sense of geography to readers unfamiliar with the city, and, at the least, a map of Bristol and the road between Bristol and Bath should have been included; without it I wouldn’t blame anyone for becoming both lost and discouraged from further exploration.

The elements of the narrative are quickly and graphically introduced: the narrator Inigo Bright (a lawyer with artistic leanings, just like the author himself) is somehow different from his father and brothers; he is charged with getting to the root of discrepancies in the activities of the Bristol-based Western Trading Company; he keeps being warned off further investigations, not least by being attacked and imprisoned; he encounters a series of shocking murders, all associated with his investigations of a suspicious trading vessel; he finally discovers the truth which — surprise, surprise — concerns his family’s involvement with slavery and the aftermath of its abolition. Running through the first-person narrative is a parallel tale of young West African women holed up, first in a slaver, then in an underground place of confinement. The final denouement only confirms what we knew from the opening pages, and so is no real mystery; the only mystery is why the young lawyer took so long to work out the obvious truth about his origins.

This was a promising proposition, a novel exploring the ramifications of Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade appearing not long after the 200th anniversary of slavery’s abolition in most of the British Empire. Sadly, The Devil’s Mask doesn’t live up to this promise. There is a catalogue of failings which weaken the impact of this historical detective fiction. First is the narrator, who is a weak and vacillating character much given to introspection but apparently caring very little about anybody or anything; as a result the reader scarcely cares about him. Second is the pace of the action: incidents lasting a few seconds are described in loving but lengthy detail, while descriptions that would give us a sense of place and time are skimped. Third, the descriptive passages are often inordinately convoluted, with pretentious word-painting such as of sunlight reflecting or not reflecting on water and apparently significant musings on seagulls. On top of that, dialogue and vocabulary were largely in modern English, heightening my sense of historical incongruity; this was not aided by the otherwise attractive book cover, based on a Victorian photograph of a half century or more later, showing the hazy outlines of St Mary Redcliffe church (actually not mentioned in the novel) behind a ship’s riggings and a young man, whom we are meant to identify as the hirsute hero, in mid-19th century clothing.

In short, this tale required very heavy editing, if not re-writing, pre-publication. It could have been an enjoyable and a real page-turner, but as it stands only a sense of duty could persuade this reviewer to complete it. It is a shame, as I really wanted to like this novel.

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10 thoughts on “Not living up to its promise

  1. I think this is the first review of yours that has been less than positive. I’m now getting very nervous. I hope this isn’t a warm up for another review…
    Saying that, it’s a great review, clearly pinpointing some of the book’s positives amongst its myriad of failings.
    I’m off to hide under the stairs.

    1. Oh, get a grip Dylan!

      Seriously, I do give the occasional negative review but I do try to find something or other nice to say. In any case, if the quality of your posts is anything to go by you have virtually nothing to worry about from me!

      1. Aha! I see my cunning attempt to garner sympathy has backfired! 😉
        As you know I occasionally review live music events held where I live. One of the hardest reviews I had to do was with a band who were technically brilliant but who’s music left me unmoved. I knew I was in a minority (and it wasn’t what you would term a home crowd) so I was left with a dilemma. In the end the review was true to how I felt. I explained their skill and expertise, but also the fact that I didn’t like their music, though others did. I hate seeing people write hatchet jobs on artists but at the same time if you gloss over the truth in an attempt to be kind, you end up hurting your credibility as a reviewer more.

        1. It’s head and/or heart, isn’t it? Plus a little thing called empathy: I try to imagine how I’d feel if I were rubbished after genuine attempts to get it right.

          There’s a mantra I use when judging individuals for music competitions — what went well and what, if anything, could be improved for the future? It’s also an approach I use for reviewing; and to lessen your anxiety I also imagine saying it to the person’s face (easy when I see your gravatar’s friendly visage!).

  2. Your description lives up to your heading’s promise.
    Apart from the merits of the book, it infuriates me when authors don’t stick to their guns in utterly refusing to accept an entirely inappropriate cover. I have personally had some interesting ‘discussions’ with publishers on that point.

  3. I can’t believe the author didn’t have some input, even if grudging, on the striking cover design. But there’s a difference between cusp of the Regency dress (say, Austen’s time) and three or more decades later (say, Brunel’s time) which the cover doesn’t address. And that goes for the architectural detail too — a mild insult to Bristolian readers who would know their history.

  4. Thank you Chris for the honest review. Sounds like a book I need to stay away from. I find that if i do not care for the protagonist, then no matter what the setting or plot, I tend to put the book aside. Nothing turns me more than self centered characters. Too many of them to contend with in real life.

    1. I was surprised this novel wasn’t more tightly edited by Faber, a well-established reputable publisher. As it is, I’m disappointed the author should come up such a weak protagonist, and not particularly inclined to seek out his more well-received novels: life’s too short, Sari!

  5. I hate that, when the English doesn’t match the time it is set in. But I am fascinated by Bristol, which had such a bad-boy image amongst all the cities of nineteenth century England. What happens when capitalism gets its own way entirely. Might give this a read, Chris, just because of its subject matter.

    1. I’m glad you haven’t been put off by my review, Kate! The subject matter — the slave trade and its aftermath — is certainly a matter for serious consideration, and much of Bristol’s fortunes were raised by its involvement, either directly or through related industries such as chocolate (Fry’s) and tobacco (the Wills family, who later contributed to the University’s growth). As always I’d be interested in your response if and when you do read it.

      By the way, a subsequent edition of this novel had a different cover — who knows, perhaps in response to my critique of the original (I was sent a review copy by the publishers).

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