Wednesday, March 3, 2010

allegory or fantasy, you choose

Niki Bruce reviews another take on modern life in Memoirs of a Master Forger.

MEMOIRS of a Master Forger by William Heaney is a fiction novel with an interesting non-fiction angle – the central character of this magic realism story bears the same name as the author, William Heaney.

The book is, however, actually written by British author Graham Joyce and the use of Heaney's name as the that of the author is a clever trope that drags the reader straight into his world.

Heaney is a troubled man. He works at an oddly named organisation that apparently assists 'youth', his wife left him for a celebrity chef and his children hate him. His closest friends are a bi-sexual male model who dabbles in poetry and a tortured artist who looks like a Hell's Angel.

Still, Heaney tries to do the right thing, supporting a shelter for the homeless, propping up his friends when their love lives implode and generally trying not to cause too much trouble. The thing is; Heaney sees demons.

His demons don't generally breathe fire, have horns on their heads or ask for peoples' souls; Heaney's demons simply bob around, haunting people until they can find a crack in their psyche and slip into their bodies.

Apparently there are precisely 1,567 demons and they've all been categorised by a certain Mr R W Goodridge in his 1973 book, Categorical Evidence for the Prevalence of the 1,567 Forms, states Heaney on the first page of Memoirs of a Master Forger. I can't find any actual evidence that this book actually exists obviously, which gives the reader yet another quirky trope to add to the list for this rather clever novel.

Memoirs of a Master Forger has been described as an 'allegorical depiction of modern life' with the 'demons' generally being considered Heaney's – or Joyce's to be more precise – interpretation of the psychological and sociological ills of the day.

And the story can be read from this perspective quite easily. There is the demon of Lust, that Heaney experiences, as well as his historical demon which is possibly Guilt, or maybe Irresponsibility or Self Obsession; that's not entirely clear. Heaney also identifies various other demons possessing his friends and family, everything from Vanity to Laziness and Misplaced Affection.

Clearly, the allegorical perspective is an easy one to assume. However readers with a more fantastical bent can just as easily enjoy this novel as a fantasy or magic realism read.

Whichever angle you choose, Memoirs of a Master Forger is worth picking up. The story touches on a number of emotions and issues; family relationships, love, loyalty, poverty, humanitarianism and even, peripherally on Britain's involvement in Iraq and its moral legacy.

But the core of the novel is Heaney with his oddly lackluster attempts to atone for something he may, or may not, have done as a college student and his convoluted attempts to protect himself from his own demons.

A series of events – the threatened closure of his favourite charity, the arrival of his daughter, the breakdown of a friend's relationship and the romantic interest of a stunning woman – lead Heaney to finally attempt to clear up his past.

The forgery itself is yet another trope for the author, since it's often discussed and is central to the action but never really materialises. Still, it's a catchy title.

Memoirs of a Master Forger is an elegant and adult read – there's no swashbuckling swords or wizards with wands – rather, it's an attempt to add a touch of mystery to what is, essentially, an ordinary life.

What makes this novel interesting, aside from Joyce's various tropes, is the way he's given a sense of satisfying heroism to someone who could be just like you. Heaney's life is brushed with the gloss of magic making it far more interesting and offering the reader hope that their ordinary life could be touched by magic too.

Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney is published by Gollancz and is available from good book stores and online.

First published on The Straits Times blogs on November 22, 2009


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