I started reading this book in the book shop and didn’t quite take in who had written it until much later, leaving me surprised to discover that it was by David Baddiel who I only ever really knew of as half of the team who brought us Three Lions and Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. I wouldn’t have expected either of them to write a book about death and life and greatness and tra la la. It so very nearly works. This is another idea of the world’s greatest living writer who is dying which hasn’t been done before or anything … this has got to be the third one that I’ve read in the last year alone. Eli Gold is basically Philip Roth only not because Philip Roth has a walk-on cameo as Eli Gold’s best friend. As someone who has never read any Philip Roth it is hard for me to put that into context. Gold has been married five times with a scattering of children, he’s in his nineties, he is basically comatose.
The narrators are various – his eight year-old daughter Colette, her mother is Freda aka Wife #5. Colette’s voice is cutesie and irritating, it’s not easy to speak child and she comes across as a precocious brat. Then there’s Harvey, his ‘anxiety-ridden’ forty-something son from his third marriage, I couldn’t stand him. This one was so obsessively concerned by the fact that he had a beautiful wife who was growing older that he felt he was going insane. Then there was the lunatic Mormon whose sister was Gold’s fourth wife, the one who killed herself in a suicide pact that Eli survived, he was also fairly unpleasant, his plan is to kill Eli before he dies of natural causes which to me made no sense – if you were going to do it, surely you’d get it done before he was terminally ill and in a coma. Lastly, you have Violet, his eighty-nine year old first wife.
It was an interesting idea, the drama of a hospital room, someone dying slowly and in public. Eli even seems credible as a Great Man, he started as an American pilot who met Violet when he was over in Britain during the war. He wrote his first book, became famous, left Violet for a French film star. From the French film star, he moved on to Harvey’s mother Joan, the grad student. He was in his sixties by the time he married number four, the Mormon, hit depression, tried to commit suicide. Then he wound up with Freda, who seems to be the Yoko Ono of the story.
This is one of those books where the characters were not that likeable, the moments of dramatic realisation were not that dramatic and the title character never speaks. Of course, it’s clever all the different ways in which Eli speaks without speaking. Colette watches as his oxygen mask is taken off for five minutes and all he can do is make sounds. Harvey cannot even remember how to address his father but watches Youtube videos of old interviews where Eli the Arch Misogynist argues with Germaine Greer. The Mormon reads a supposed online transcript of the interview Eli gave to the police after his wife killed herself. Violet remembers her own conversations with Eli where she never knew what to say and tries to read one of his books. Eli is present in all their lives without being there at all.
This was a middling read, I wouldn’t reread it but I liked a lot of what it tried to do. I’m always impressed by an author who can work in contemporary technology since I recognise how much more difficult they have made it to create suspense. Harvey looks himself and his father up on Wikipedia and Amazon, tries to win at chess on his iPhone, he has conversations on Facebook, it works without seeming overly forced. Baddiel is trying so hard to make this into a Great Book but in many ways he is trying too hard.
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Published by HarperCollins UK on March 3rd 2011
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
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