Early in 2012 I was invited to join the newly created Pan MacMillan Reading Groups Panel. Twenty keen readers were selected from over 200 applications. We are a diverse mix of people; a wide age range, a mix of professions and almost entirely female. Yesterday we met at The Rotunda in Kings Cross to debate our latest read; The Deaths by Mark Lawson.
The Deaths is marketed as a 'two in one' book, both social satire and a crime story. Everything about The Deaths was discussed yesterday in much detail, from the cover image, to the marketing slant, to whether this was based on real people. Personally, I thought that our The Deaths discussion was the best yet, it was so interesting to find that other members of the group had not considered things that seemed so important to me in the story, and that I'd totally missed points that were crucial to other readers. We talked, we dissected, we analysed, we laughed, and then we got to meet the author! Poor man, faced with so many questions, it was a bit of a grilling.
So, back to the book, and my thoughts. The setting is a beautiful Berkshire village, a commuter village, on the London trainline. The characters are 'The Eight'; four couples who live with their assorted children and dogs in four wonderful houses. Houses that were built originally for the old aristocracy and have now been renovated and modernised to be occupied by the new elite. Bankers, financiers, doctors, lawyers, successful business people - these are the people that are reaping the rewards of the boom years. Seats in the first-class carriages on the daily commute, short breaks to Marrakesh and designer coffee - these are the important things in their lives. But things are changing in Britain, businesses are crumbling, the recession is hitting hard, how long can The Eight keep up their lifestyles, how long can they hide their problems from each other?
A terrible act of violence happens within the first few pages. One of the families is wiped out, a murder-suicide - the father kills his entire family. The mystery that the reader is faced with is which one of The Eight is no more? Mark Lawson has created an extremely clever, fairly complicated story here, but a story that is so compelling that despite the obnoxious characters, who I will admit that I hated from page one, it becomes one of those 'can't put down' books as the emotional fragilities and hidden secrets of each family is uncovered.
The world of designer coffee is central to this story. The reader is introduced to Jason, a delivery driver for CappuccinGo - an up-market drinks company who deliver their special coffee capsules to the new aristocracy. Jason has his own views about The Eight - they provide his living and he's grateful, but to him, this upper-class obsession with posh hot drinks is a real sign of the times. The coffee theme continues as the reader learns more about each of the families. Who managed to get the special limited-edition capsules this week? The reader is also introduced to the world of supermarket snobbery, and the temptations that arise when faced with the trusting 'scan your own' groceries.
This is a novel about the new rich, and also about how the new rich are becoming the new poor. The husbands in this book do not come out well, not at all. They are an assortment of characters, with different careers and very different bank balances, but their common bond is that they are all pretty vile. Their wives don't fare much better, on the whole they do a lot of doing nothing. Only Tom and Emily seem to have any redeeming features, she's a GP, he's ex military and they do seem to realise that life in the village is based on what people have instead of what people are. Despite this, they don't do anything to discourage the lifestyle and seem happy enough to be part of the elite.
The Deaths is very current, it deals with current situations and Mark Lawson has based his characters on people that he has come across in real life. For me, living in a small market town in the depths of Lincolnshire which is most definitely not on the commuter line, it was a revelation. I do not come across people like this, ever. Yes, I know they exist, one only has to read the newspapers to realise that. I'm pretty pleased that I don't have to endure families like this, I find them fascinating, but they would drive me mad!
Despite the obnoxious characters and their luxury lifestyles, I did get very emotional towards the end of the story. Mark Lawson exposes their vulnerabilities and their failings so well, that I shed a tear. Not for the characters really, but for the waste. The waste of their potential and the fact that their stubbornness and way of life prevented them from being honest, with themselves and with their friends.
This is a novel that raised so many questions for me. Despite having finished it over 6 weeks ago, the characters have remained in my head. I was very much looking forward to our Panel Discussion, which was lively and quite fascinating. Meeting the author was a bonus, and we were able to ask questions and get answers that only reinforced my feelings about the story.
I think that The Deaths will be a very important novel in years to come. It is a story of it's time, a social history for generations to come.
The Deaths will be published in hardback by Pan MacMillan on 12 September 2013.
Mark Lawson is a novelist and cultural critic. He has published four novels including , and . He is the presenter of the BBC Radio 4 arts programme and BBC Four's series. He also writes for the