When Martha met Bridget

Sat, Apr 2, 2011, 01:00

FICTION: HILARY FANNINreviews The SpoilerBy Annalena McAfee Harvill Secker, 309pp. £12.99

‘YOU PEOPLE ARE only interested in simple-minded archetypes. Bad people. Good people. Fairy-tale endings. Cruel comeuppances. Imbecilic morality tales for an amoral age.”

So says the Pulitzer-winning octogenarian reporter Honor Tait to the young and ambitious newspaper journo Tamara Sim.

Sim, no less than Tait, is a product of her age. While Tait’s career saw her travel the world and report on the rise of fascism and the liberation of the Nazi death camps, half a century later Sim has her cheap high heels planted firmly under her shared desk in a basement office, as she compiles endless what’s-hot-and-what’s-not lists for Psst!magazine.

As Tait, with her somewhat inevitable startling beauty and unflinching eye, was encouraged to eviscerate the bloody details of Vietnam and Cambodia, among other theatres of 20th-century war, Sim has to battle amorous half-cut bosses, an uncertain freelance existence and the incipient and terrifying prospect of the internet.

When, through accidental good fortune, Sim finds herself in Tait’s musty north London mansion flat, conducting an interview for the much-vaunted Zeitgeistliterary supplement, she thinks her days of doorstepping soap-opera celebrities and writing in-depth reports on boob jobs and rehab have come to an end. Her trajectory from harassed, hungover hack to svelte, desirable arts journalist, click-clacking around trendy London galleries and first-night parties, is not to be as straightforward as she imagines, however.

In Tait she meets a resolute woman, frail, angry, steely, and haunted by the ghosts that walk the corridors of her once-glittering career. The book is set in 1997, when the newspaper industry was on the cusp of a technological revolution, and ultimately neither woman is able to stem the engulfing tide of change or satisfy a voracious media that is not opposed to slaughtering sacred cows.

Annalena McAfee, wife of the writer Ian McEwan (to whom this novel, her first, is dedicated), worked in newspapers for more than 30 years. A former arts and literary editor of the Financial Timesand founder of the Guardianreview, she writes with surety and caustic humour about the industry at a time when liquid lunches and roomy expense accounts were the norm. Her description of the annual newspaper awards, a bear pit of rancour and professional jealousies peppered with lugubrious drunken journos, vomiting subeditors and lecherous shareholders – a cabal presided over by a has-been television comedian – is deeply satisfying.

The Spoileris an extremely competent book, tightly written and pacy. The central characters are believable, the setting exact, and one would defy the reader not to feel contained, held, by the professionalism and dexterity of the author. For all that, however, there is a somewhat clinical feeling to the proceedings, a sense that the architecture of the plot is ultimately obstructive.

Tait and Sim are the very archetypes so despised by McAfee’s elderly journalist: they are Martha Gellhorn in conversation with Bridget Jones. But if the author skirts cliche in her portraits of the two women, she determinedly dispenses with those other elements of modern journalism that Tait so despises: there are no thoroughly good people or unquestionably bad people, there is certainly no fairy-tale ending, and the cruel comeuppance at the heart of the book is inescapable for every last one of us.

For all her clever observation of office life and the brutal politics of the workplace, McAfee is at her best when writing about old age. Her portrait of Tait gradually dispatching the detritus of her life down the rubbish chute is movingly written. Once beautiful, once desirable, once fearless, Tait has lost her power to enthral and attract but not her habit of trenchant, pitiless analysis, a tool so necessary for her career yet so viciously destructive when turned on the ageing self.

Hilary Fannin is a playwright and journalist. Her most recent play was Phaedrafor Rough Magic. She is writing a new play for the company