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New Suit for King Diamond

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by Peter Cowlam

The news that New Suit for King Diamond had been nominated by its publisher (Trevor Lockwood's Author Publishing Ltd) for the Booker Prize filled me with scepticism. Why, after all, would someone capable of writing a Booker winner need to go to a print-on-demand publisher to get his work into the public eye? That simply shows my own inconsistency - after all, didn't I go into self-publishing with a belief that my own work was failing, not because of its inherent flaws, but because of major publishers' reluctance to take up good manuscripts when they are offered? Peter Cowlam's book proves my first instincts correct. Of course, I don't know for certain that he collected any rejection slips before approaching a POD publisher, but I'm guessing that he couldn't afford to take a chance on ending up with a load of remainder copies.

I know nothing, to speak of, about the author. His publicity tells us that his previous self-published novel, Electric Letters Z - which I was surprised to find I had heard of - got a rave review from The Observer, but it doesn't tell us anything about the man. So on to his latest effort.

The originality of the main plot, coupled with the fine writing, makes this one of the more memorable novels I have read in the past few years. New Suit for King Diamond is set in a not-so-distant future where the federal state of Europa has finally succeeded in swallowing up national identities and cultures. Shrewdly, Mr Cowlam does not dwell on the little details that add up to this imaginative whole. The scandal leading to the enforced retirement of the British royal family, for example, is referred to in a brief aside. Yet it is in these little diversions that the richest humour is to be found.

The author makes a show of concentrating, instead, on the task in hand - whatever that may be - with the narrator repeatedly and self-consciously dragging our attention back to his basic theme. Central to this are the machinations of a group of civil servants, and we are led into the story through a maze of short introductory chapters which are just beginning to feel tedious when we emerge into the semi-enlightenment of the main narrative. Our guide through this, Anno (a piece of wordplay whose significance is kept for later), is the head of the government "monitoring" agency located within the fantastic Mediterranean property known as Ix, originally conceived as the New Bayreuth. The thorn in Anno's side is his colleague, known as "Six", whose paranoid belief in a new wave of international terrorism leads to an investigation of mysterious media figure Craig Diamond, resulting in a trip to New Zealand where the narrator continues to spend the bulk of his time musing on his subject's life history.

Not only does Peter Cowlam use the English language beautifully, he invariably uses it correctly, a practice which is becoming increasingly unusual even amidst the output of major publishers. The result of this is, of course, to make the book stand out from its peers, but inevitably it also reduces the breadth of its appeal. The intensity of the narrative is such that the reader cannot get away with skipping a few words, for fear of missing some important point. This is not bedtime reading.

After a while, the author saves us the trouble of re-reading paragraphs by repeating them, producing an odd, but doubtless intended, sensation of déjà vu. The purpose of this is perhaps to keep hold of those readers who have already lost the thread. Whether the device works is questionable. As for the content, there are times when it all borders on philosophy. If I understand correctly, Mr Cowlam's concern - or at least that of his characters - is the nature, and future, of culture.

The text is littered with cameo appearances by real-life celebrities, under the thin disguise of false names. I enjoyed spotting them: the Antipodean media mogul, the streaker-turned-novelist, the veteran chat-show host. At the same time, I began to wonder if there was a real point behind all the sparkling satire, some profound and nightmarish vision of the future, perhaps - or if I was simply too dim to recognise the book's message.

What is lacking from this novel is none of the obvious and usual things. Political correctness is completely absent, but that can hardly be considered a failing in this context. The dialogue, scant as it is, is perfectly natural-sounding; the characterisation, based largely on minute physical observation, is clever; and the narrative flows smoothly and colourfully towards the story's climax. There is humour. There is brilliance. What there is not, is any reason to feel that any of it matters. This isn't because the setting is a never-never-land, a kind of 1984 meets The Prisoner. It is simply because the narrator is an unsympathetic voice who fails to engage with either his audience or the other characters. For the majority of readers, this is, unfortunately, a major shortcoming.

All the same, I hope New Suit for King Diamond gets a favourable reception from the Booker judges. It isn't any less deserving than most of the past winners. And it's a lot better than some.


ISBN 1 898030 47 2         
Published by Author Publishing Ltd, 2002
228pp, paperback
Retail price £

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Review by Deborah Fisher