James Meek - We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (3 stars)

James Meek

War drama

After the epic scope of his post-Russian Revolution prize-winner, The People’s Act of Love, James Meek turns his eye to recent history, drawing on his experience as The Guardian’s Afghanistan and Iraq correspondent. Journalist and novelist Adam Kellas is rootless, pushing 40, and about to depart for Iraq. Damaged by battlefields where nothing seems real, he crosses continents and set pieces at the speed of information, his aloof observer’s eye easily distracted by memories of other wars and other women he has failed to understand.

The writing depicting the landscapes, pending threat and cramped correspondents’ quarters is so clear, vivid and absorbing that the London scenes, where rich socialists do battle over dinner, can’t ever evolve beyond hazy caricature. This may well be the author’s intention, but as these scenes carry the weight of the narrative it doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading, the chattering characters always acutely self-aware that they’re stuck in an important, hard-hitting novel about the way people perceive things today. No one laughs, and (again, perhaps deliberately) none of the characters are much more fully realised than the Iranian schoolgirl in Adam’s novel, a ‘petite paragon whose only purpose was innocence and martyrdom’.

Often, it just feels as though Meek has tried to justify his big backdrops by shoving too much meaning in, from the portentous transatlantic title down. What we’re left with is a meticulously-described tale of the way one man learns to live (just) outside of his imagination, and the unerring sense that something far more interesting is happening over his shoulder.
(Kirstin Innes)

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