Fox by Anthony Gardner review: fantastical, futuristic but oddly familiar

Anne Haverty admires a satire on the reality of ever-encroaching mass surveillance with a passionate vein of seriousness

Thu, Feb 18, 2016, 12:28

   
 

Book Title:
Fox

ISBN-13:
978-0993368042

Author:
Anthony Gardner

Publisher:
Ardleevan Press

Guideline Price:
£17.99

From the start there’s something oddly familiar about Fox, for all its fantastical capers and futuristic plot. It begins with the book itself. As an object, Fox – Anthony Gardner’s second novel – is very beautiful and well-designed in a way that books were long ago.

The cherry-red cloth cover is embossed with strong black lettering and a loping fox. The pages are spacious, the print graceful and the occasional illustrations charming. It does bring you back to other times – the 1930s perhaps?

And so too does the writing. It has a familiarity that’s also hard to place; relaxed and smooth, when contemporary writing is typically effortful and self-conscious. And, though by no means only utilitarian, it makes little bones about its first function being to tell a story. The story on the other hand is very contemporary. Fox-flu, a deadly disease transmitted by the proliferating population of foxes across Europe, threatens Britain.

The prime minister, the ruthless and brooding type of politician, sees in fox-flu the opportunity to secretly expand, to a staggering degree, the project of mass-surveillance.

He’s in cahoots with the Chinese, who have new and sophisticated nano-camera technology which allows every individual to be observed 24/7.

China has, as well, a newly invented method of administering this technology, in the form of a syringe. The prime minister’s devilish plan is to inoculate UK inhabitants, unbeknownst to them, with personal surveillance devices along with their eagerly awaited fox-flu vaccinations.

The important villains are in position: the prime minister and Zhou, the Chinese vice-president. Enter the heroes, the Brothers of Light, Anglican Christians in China. Zhou wants the Brothers – they do have women members as well – silenced. In return for the secrets of the syringe he demands, among other favours, “the balls of the Archbishop of Canterbury”.

So far, so just-about feasible, to the conspiratorial-minded at least. However from here the plot takes off into ever wilder flights and an array of picturesque characters takes centre stage.

They are many. Prominent among them is huntsman Frank, cantering along at dawn, dressed in traditional hunting gear, through the streets of Central London as he hunts down urban foxes with his pack of enthusiastic hounds.

Frank takes his fox-hunting seriously but he’s equally the reluctant star of a morning TV show, whose producer is obsessed with ratings and fox-kills.

Meanwhile, in China, Christophe Hardy, a melancholy middle-aged widower, finds himself on the run as the defender of the Brothers of Light.

Matt, Christophe’s brother-in-law, is in prison for the principled non-payment of a fine, along with Jake, an animal-rights activist. Matt is sprung from prison by Selina, Goth daughter of the governor.

Lu, Sino-English, runs the Pu Dong pudding company from his van and has brought up his schoolboy son to be the kind of anachronistic English gentleman, straight out of RM Ballantyne or GA Henty: he calls his father “Pater” and describes things as “ripping”.

There’s the Chinese hit-pair, Jonty and Fay, who hang out in Belgravia parties of oligarchs wearing dark glasses and Gucci leather.

The nasty and pettifogging civil servant Jennifer Pettifer has her role to play. Not least there’s Mr Li, the inventor of the syringe, and hapless tool of Zhou et al. There’s also an independent-minded fox or two.

Christophe’s fugitive travels around present-day China, juxtaposed with his wistful memories of it a few decades ago – “geometric paddy fields, abundant lakes, Willow Pattern hills” – are vividly described. But all too soon – I liked the immersion in present-day China – he evades his pursuers and gets back to England.

Along the way, the surprisingly able action-hero saves the romantically pale and ailing Amy, a sister Brother of Light, from various perils. The crucial syringe prototype in his shirt pocket survives these perils as well. This syringe is the thriller-hallowed holy grail that everybody wants.

By train, car, on foot or by helicopter, all these characters make their way to an isolated farmhouse in Northumbria. Before they turn up, there’s a dizzying succession of thrills and spills: shoot-outs, encounters with enemies official and unofficial, car chases, and close escapes.

The pace is fast but Anthony Gardner’s fluid and euphonious style keeps it on the right side of hectic. Fox might make a great TV series if they added a bit more grim to suit contemporary tastes.

Of course the enemies in hot pursuit make their way as well to the isolated farmhouse. By the time they get there the thriller components, even if playful, have won out and there’s real suspense in how Christophe is going to get himself – and the syringe – out of this.

There’s more to the characters than might appear, not least more to Christophe. But this is a novel in which the intricately worked plot takes precedence over story so that it might be best described as a jeu d’esprit.

Nonetheless, as a satire on the reality of ever-encroaching mass surveillance it has a passionate vein of seriousness running through it. That the individual, pitted against unknown and sinister forces, wins out is optimistic and fanciful, but it does depict his or her plight.

And that sense of familiarity? As well as satire, it’s surely a homage to those children’s adventure stories of the past, full of what aficionados know as derring-do where the goodies defeat the baddies. The name Christophe Hardy may be a nod to The Hardy Boys.

Anne Haverty’s Constance Markievicz: Irish Revolutionary will soon be available in a revised edition