Nuala Casey – Soho, 4A.M.
(Quercus, 368pp., pb £7.99. Book review by Chris Parker)
Nuala Casey, after graduating from Durham in 2001, spent four years attempting to establish herself as a singer/songwriter, based in a tiny studio flat opposite Ronnie Scott’s in Frith Street, London. This experience informs her debut novel, which chronicles the intertwined lives of four denizens of Soho on the night between the announcement of London’s successful Olympic bid and the terrorist bombings of 7 July 2005.
This quartet of characters are all struggling to stay afloat in the capital’s swirling maelstrom, let alone fulfil their various ambitions: Stella is an aspiring singer/songwriter afflicted with bulimia; Ade is her jazz-musician boyfriend, painfully aware of the tawdriness of his sell-out to the world of commercial music and consequently trying to drown his sorrows in drink and impersonal sex with prostitutes; Seb is a public-school-educated artist with a secret sorrow, compromising his artistic integrity daily at a model agency; Zoe is a naïve modelling hopeful, down from Middlesbrough with the intention of establishing herself in the world of lads’ mags and WAGs celebrity culture.
The night of 6–7 July brings varying degrees of shocking disillusionment, pain, suffering (and enlightenment) to all these characters, and the seamy nightlife of Soho and the alcohol-fuelled despair of Seb and Ade, the tragic ingenuousness and gullibility of Zoe, the self-deceit and touching vulnerability of Stella and the callous misogynistic violence of the Soho sex industry are all vividly portrayed in this racily readable novel.
From a jazz lover’s perspective, however, it is perhaps something of a disappointment to find, as seems to be de rigueur in the fictional world, that Ade is a straightforward embodiment of central-casting jazz-musician cliché: self-obsessed, driven by a macho compulsion to express and prove himself no matter what the cost to others, violently and casually exploitative in his relations with women. There are also occasional slips into convenient inauthenticity (repeated encores demanded by a Ronnie Scott’s audience, an unlikely substratum of vicious villains, warm-hearted barmaids, exploitative landladies, self-regardingly vacuous pop stars etc.), but overall, this is a considered and clearly heartfelt portrait of the seedy underbelly of the capital’s nightlife and the havoc it can wreak on long-cherished dreams, from a talented, sensitive and thoughtful debut novelist.