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by Sean Burke

Cardiff has become a fashionable setting for novels, since the city got a facelift. It's almost obligatory to include some geographical information in the first couple of paragraphs, as a taster for what's to come. This approach is designed to attract a local audience.

"She wouldn't ever know that it was the Severn Tunnel that decided her" writes Sean Burke as an opening to the third sentence of Deadwater.

"Gosh," exclaims the reader, flicking through the pages of the paperback in the Hayes branch of Waterstone's. "I've been through the Severn Tunnel on the train. This bloke is actually writing about places I know." Without further ado, he races for the checkout. That's the idea, anyway.

In terms of its literary justification, a familiar location does, obviously, add to the immediacy of the story and characters. Whether it is potentially off-putting to those who don't make regular journeys to and from Paddington, I cannot tell. The publishers, London-based Serpent's Tail, evidently don't think so. Apparently they specialise in publishing work by "outlaw voices", regardless of nationality. You can tell Sean Burke is an outlaw by the frequency with which he uses the F-word, and by the way his characters speak in the appropriate idiom without ever saying anything that makes sense.

Deadwater is actually a murder mystery - of the Barbara Vine rather than the Ruth Rendell variety - which, if a recent article in New Welsh Review is to be believed, should automatically disqualify it from consideration for the Welsh Book of the Year Award. Alternatively, it could be regarded as a historical novel, with the action taking place in 1989, before Butetown became glamorous. What distinguishes "literary" from genre fiction and marks out Sean Burke from, let's say, Iris Gower, is the profusion of adjectives. Better still if they are made-up adjectives like "harshdirt" or "amazeless", and are linked with lengthy metaphors in no way resembling the clichés that have lost the power to tell the reader anything about a character or situation.

All this is simply my envy coming to the surface. Sean Burke is undoubtedly a fine writer, lyrical and inventive. I found myself admiring his style even while I was having difficulty understanding what the book was about. Scarcely a word falls into its anticipated context: the crowd at a gig becomes the "congregation"; tenses shift, pronouns are suddenly displaced. It's more than good writing, it's exciting, which is just as well. One needs a reason to persevere with this cock and bull story (and I'm using that expression literally).

The compulsion to read on comes, not from a gripping storyline, nor even from fascinated horror as the gruesome sequence of events progresses, but from a vain, almost masochistic hope that the action may at some point become comprehensible. The dénouement, when it arrives, is perfectly predictable, yet the motivation for the main protagonists' behaviour remains obscure, hinted at in their nightmares and hallucinations but never laid on the line. Perhaps this is the whole point, though. From the opening page, our hero, alcoholic chemist Jack Farrissey, is launched on a self-destructive course. It's only a matter of how long it will take him to reach his destination. Other people enter and leave his meaningless world in a haze of drink and drugs. Chronology, like everything else in this excuse for a life, is illusory. The dockland backdrop is the bleakest of landscapes, leaving the reader with an awful aftertaste of depression and despair.

You have to ask yourself why Sean Burke is bothering with this plot and these characters. They are not merely unsympathetic, they are actively obnoxious. We may feel a milligramme of pity for Farrissey, as he struggles to come to terms with the idea that he may not be the father of his wife's unborn child (which seems to worry him considerably more than the possibility that he may have participated in a murder he can't remember). Farrissey, in fact, is a saint by comparison with his drug-dealing best friend, his unfaithful and self-centred wife, and the two vicious thugs she is defending against a murder charge - but that doesn't make him likeable. Once, it seems, Cardiff was entirely populated by such "characters". Whether this is an accurate representation of those times, or whether Mr Burke is just reinforcing a popular image of the former docklands, I have no way of knowing. Was there no one in the old Butetown that was neither on the wrong side of the law nor permanently stoned? Apparently not, and, if the current crop of Cardiff novelists is to be believed, little has changed.

On the whole, I'd rather be in Swansea.


Open Book

Review by Deborah Fisher