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A Lonely Man: How far should you go to write a great novel?

Chris Power’s clever debut novel on the sacrifices needed to create good art

A Lonely Man
A Lonely Man
Author: Chris Power
ISBN-13: 978-0571341214
Publisher: Faber
Guideline Price: £14.99

“He no longer wanted to write the book described in the outline they had paid for. Or maybe he didn’t have the ability.” At first glance it appears that we could be in difficult second album territory with Chris Power’s debut novel. A Lonely Man follows Mothers, an acclaimed collection of short stories that was longlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize and shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize in 2018.

Alarm bells ring in early chapters when the book’s protagonist, Robert, a novelist living in Berlin with his young family, spends his time mooching about the city, struggling to write a novel after a successful collection of short stories some years previously. Is this, we wonder, to be a novel about the difficult process of writing a novel?

Luckily for the reader, there is a lot more going on than first meets the eye. This is an intricate and elegant story, and cleverly metatextual. A Lonely Man is an exploration of the creative process, and the sacrifices that are made in real life in the pursuit of art.

Complementing Robert’s own struggles with writing is a second plot that involves a troubled individual, Patrick, the titular man whom Robert meets at a book launch. With this subplot, Power’s style of plain, unshowy prose comes into its own. In loftier hands, the narrative of Patrick, a British ghostwriter drawn into the treacherous world of Russian oligarchs, might seem far-fetched. In A Lonely Man, this second story adds depth to Robert’s narrative, leading to interesting questions about ownership when it comes to telling stories.


Patrick, a pleasingly unreliable character, spins a fantastic yarn about the Russian oligarch at the centre of his new biography. From stories of state-sanctioned poisoning and cover-up suicides to sex trafficking, it soon emerges that there is plenty in Patrick’s real-life story for Robert to turn into fiction. What follows is an intriguing cat-and-mouse tale of stories within stories, a Russian doll of a debut novel.

Blurred lines

The old Faulkner quote that fiction is truer than fact is writ large across A Lonely Man. So too is Graham Greene’s assertion that in the heart of each writer lies a splinter of ice. For much of the book, Robert seems willing to make huge sacrifices in his own life, and to literally gamble with Patrick’s life, in his quest to write a good novel. “Sometimes actual events were the only thing that gave a story life,” he says at one point, highlighting the elastic nature of the line between truth and fiction.

Other successes include the atmospheric writing – “the rain-dark stones embedded in the road shone like birds’ eyes in his torch beam” – from the landscape of remote Sweden, to the sticky London summer, to the clubbing scene in Berlin. There is an arch tone to Robert’s voice that works especially well when he analyses his life decisions: “Like a lot of people who had arrived in Berlin since the millennium, he wanted the city he had first loved to continue existing, but not in his Kiez.”

No longer into the club scene, Robert is more sedate now. He is married to a pragmatic Swedish woman and father to two young girls. His rage at his children and their ordinary, childish ways is another interesting facet not often explored in fiction. Elsewhere, his wife’s response to his writing woes shows the story from another perspective: “Write, don’t write, but leave us out of the pity party.”

Power, who has family connections to Waterford, lives in London. The clarity of his writing recalls Callan Wink's August, another writer who recently followed an acclaimed debut collection with a novel. The twisty tale of Delphine de Vigan's Based on a True Story is another touchstone.

Stilted dialogue

The dialogue can feel stilted at times, particularly in the sections involving the Russians. There is not the same level of intimacy with these parts – in contrast, for example, to a brilliant set-piece that sees Robert travel to London after the suicide of his friend – and sustaining interest in the subplot will hinge on how much the reader cares about the machinations of Russian oligarchs and politicians. For those who do, there are plenty of titbits, from the Magnitsky Act to the siloviki, or strongmen, who relentlessly tail Patrick around Berlin.

Ultimately the book offers an original exploration of the creative process: writer as tortured artist, writer as thief, writer as predator. By the shrewd ending, Robert comes to realise what it means to jeopardise the real world and the people he loves. Beware, the book seems to say, of the dangers of prizing fiction above life itself.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts