The Short Version: The House of Journalists – a house, in London, converted into a sort of halfway-home/asylum for persecuted writers, fleeing repressive countries and regimes. But the writers are, to some, less important than their stories and the prestige those stories bring – and the House’s ‘leader’ will stop at nothing to ensure that the House survives any potential storms…
The Review: The realities of political oppression are widespread and widely documented. At no other time in history has it been so easy to find unique stories of torture, intimidation, fear – and stories of bravery, courage, sacrifice – as it is today. But the prevalence of these stories, the fact that they’re so readily accessible in the modern age, changes the way the general public interacts with them. It’s a sort of desensitization, not unlike the way Americans have sort of gotten used to the continued death toll in the Iraq/Afghan wars. But these individuals who do survive (if not triumph over) adversity in their home countries, they are often welcomed and (if only briefly) feted in the West – and that’s where Tim Finch strikes with this book.
Finch has a remarkably le Carré-ian style, in many ways. The simple prose – beautiful and descriptive but also standing a little detached, cool in a sort of gray London springtime sort of way – gave me that feeling, I guess. In the same way that the master’s works can sometimes keep the reader at arm’s length, I sometimes felt here that I was being kept somewhat apart from the action, even as the cleverly deployed shifts between first/second/third-person narration drew me closer. I saw a spell being cast and felt myself under it – but never fully inside of it, as though I was meant to keep a slightly external perspective.
The plot, too, has a sense of that flat spy novel about it: there are government ruminations, mysterious fellows joining and leaving the House, a mid-level bureaucrat who becomes a sort of tin-pot tyrant – but there was something else about it, too. Finch comes to fiction from the world of journalism and I think it’s that fact above any other that defines this novel for me. You can feel him both straining against and taking comfort in his (for lack of a better term) training as a non-fiction reporter. The novel soars when he allows the fellows at the House to tell their tales – Agnes’, in particular, feels not only the most complete but the most beautiful. There’s a question of how much they were based in truth vs. invention… but that’s not a question Finch avoids. Indeed, throughout the novel there are ruminations (sometimes as simple as a tossed-off sentence) about how we rewrite our own stories to sound better, to be more appealing. I know I do it, I’m sure you do as well – the fundamental facts do not change but we craft our stories to be, inherently, more interesting or exciting than they might’ve been.
Finch also takes that further and raises some really excellent ethical questions about what I’ll go out on a limb and call the modern-day “white man’s burden”. Anyone who recalls their European History classes will perk up at that phrase – it’s that idea that we (the West) decided, at one point, that we were not only the best but that it was our moral duty to help other people strive to be as great as we were. “Help our little brown brothers” was a favorite phrase of the Brits, as I recall. And Julian seems to be living under a similar sort of ethos in a way. He does, indeed, want to help the fellows who come to the House – but he takes his role a little too zealously, attaching himself too closely to the House’s prestige and growing to see the House as what’s important, not the people who make up the House. I do wish Finch had gone a little further here, with the political ramifications of all this – not necessarily into the thriller zone that it could’ve easily devolved into (and that the back cover blurb lightly implies) but simply to look even further at what it means to… well, abuse these people who have come to the West for help. Agnes, again, proves to be the best example of this: she sees it and while she is obviously grateful for her time at the House… there’s a sense (perhaps because she is young, perhaps because she is stronger than some of the others) that she will be okay without it. And that leaving, all the fellows who have left… there is a sense that the House exists whether they are there or not. But the thing is, the House would not exist without them. It’s a fine balance and I loved the ambiguities Finch danced with regarding it.
Rating: 4 out of 5. This is not a book for everyone. It moves at its own pace, often coolly and calmly and without much seeming “purpose” – but for those interested in politics, in oppression, in yet another angle of our increasingly globalized world… this is a golden debut. It reminded me of how much I loved my poli sci classes in college and how proud I am to maintain even the slightest interest in that part of our world. I look forward to whatever comes next from Mr. Finch – and I hope that this book garners some level of acclaim, if only to shed light on the very real and very thorny problems of helping those whose stories have been silenced.