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Book review: Blackheath by Adam Baron

Adam Baron’s novel Blackheath is blackly comic and almost forensic in its detail: he lifts the roof on middle class urbanites who appear to have it all, examining the lives of two families in particular and fully exposing them to the reader. You see their thought processes take shape as they (often silently) voice their daily concerns; watch them manoeuvre for position with their partners, and sometimes the parents of their children’s classmates; see them weigh up compromises and what it will cost them or their partner in return, all while juggling child care, two careers, creative endeavours, sex, a family… all modern life.

Holding a mirror up to contemporary gender politics and exposing the flaws and failures of so-called equal parenting, Blackheath is a moving and sharply comic tale of life-after-children, revealing the awful truth at the heart of modern family life: love is not enough.

Amelia has everything: two perfect children, a successful husband who loves her, and a big house in London’s affluent Blackheath. So why does she wake up one morning with a distaste for her daughter and an unexplained attraction to James, a dad she sees in the playground at drop off?

James has everything: a happy marriage to poet and fellow academic Alice and two children they both adore, sharing the childcare and fitting it around their work commitments. James loves his children intensely, but caring for them during the week makes him feel like a failure, especially when the suited-up bankers and lawyers of Blackheath pass him on the school run, heading for the station and their real lives in the city. When his wife’s star begins to rise, James is tempted back into his old career on the comedy circuit, looking for a way to cure his sense that something vital is missing.

As the two couples’ lives increasingly overlap, all four characters are thrown into turmoil, and the repercussions threaten to blow both families apart.

Blackheath‘s world is that of the late thirty to forty-something urban professional couple with young kids or teenagers, with careers in academia and the arts, no longer renting but with their own no doubt heavily-mortgaged home in an affluent and trendy neighbourhood. They live there for the cachet, the good schools (which here means the ones that’ll give their offspring what they perceive to be a head start in life) and being among people they either aspire to be or who they already feel are their modern-day tribe. Not only are the women especially filled with angst about achieving a balance and meaning in their own lives but they worry how everyone else in the neighbourhood views, and judges, them. Conversations are at best negotiations, at worst battle campaigns. And as in most things, there are winners and losers. Life in the real-world inspiration for Blackheath and which it skewers so successfully must be exhausting and I’m not convinced I’d last very long there.

Reading Blackheath doesn’t feel so much as if a mirror is being held up to a section of contemporary life and its values, rather that it’s put under a magnifying glass while being dissected by Adam Baron and carefully arranged in all its gory detail for his reader to pore over and examine. (That he’s previously written crime novels may play a part here.) I was up close with these characters, at times almost claustrophobically so: caught up in their mental machinations and manoeuvring for position and in need of escaping across a heath of my own for some fresh air and space. I also admit to needing the occasional break from reading Blackheath where I became aware of too many consecutive truncated sentences and their staccato rhythm irritated me and jolted me out of that world. If this all sounds too bleak and depressing, there is humour and warmth here too within the pages of Blackheath: moments of joy, simple pleasures, love, lust, pride in one’s children, partner and even one’s own achievements, for example. I didn’t laugh out loud when reading Blackheath but there are moments when I snort-laughed in recognition of or while cringing at the acute observations made. And it’s little wonder the stand-up comedian father finds such a rich seam of material in his life.

Adam Baron creates the world of Blackheath so well that I felt as if I were snooping round lives and houses where I didn’t belong. And with each door he prised ajar, I felt myself sucked further and further in, getting closer and closer involved, or entangled, with the lives of his characters. This isn’t my world and I’m thankful for that. But it was fascinating to get such a close look at the world of Blackheath and to spend time with its people. I came out with a better understanding of them: their hopes and fears, dreams and concerns, why they strive for the lives they do, how ridiculous it is at times and to laugh at that, and doesn’t that show where good writing succeeds? Blackheath gained me temporary access to a world other than my own, helping me to sample it, understand it and its people better, even if in reality it’s not for me and I’m happy to leave it safely between the covers when I finish reading and am free to roam again.

Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a copy of Blackheath for review. 

Blackheath is out now in paperbook and as an ebook. It is Adam Baron’s fifth novel and is published by Myriad Editions. You can find out more about the author, his book, and where to purchase it from Myriad Editions.

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