Joe Dunthorne – The Adulterants (3 stars)

Joe Dunthorne – The Adulterants

Intimate story of middle class lives with fierce black humour and crisp prose

Up until now, Joe Dunthorne's novels have concerned themselves with tales of coming of age, first in his breakthrough debut Submarine (2008), which told of first love and parental marital strain from a 15-year-old perspective and was filmed by Richard Ayoade in 2010, and next in 2011's Wild Abandon, which traced the lives of two teenage siblings growing up on their parents' drop-out commune in the Welsh countryside. In The Adulterants, seven years in the waiting, the characters he portrays are grown up, but the coming of age element isn't entirely subdued; one of the innate understandings which Dunthorne demonstrates here is that, even in their thirties, adults are as adrift as children in similar ways.

The novel tells of a quartet of thirtysomething Londoners from the perspective of Ray, a freelance tech journalist, whose marriage to intensive care nurse Garthene is comfortable and perfectly ordinary, although she's expecting their first child imminently. One night, at a party with their married friends Marie and Lee, Ray and Marie flirt a little too intimately, and a drunk Lee punches him; yet this is just the straw which breaks the back of the couple's marriage, and a heartbroken Lee – friends with Garthene for many years – ends up sleeping on her and Ray's sofa.

At fewer than two hundred pages it's an economical read, and the story retains a narrow focus on just the core group of characters and those who come into their orbit. The book's intimacy and fluency in middle class lives reminds somewhat of Ian McEwan, but what sets Dunthorne's writing apart – and elevates it – is a fierce black humour which matches the addictively readable crispness of the prose.

Out on Thu 8 Feb, published by Penguin/Hamish Hamilton.

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