A photograph is a secret about a secret

Master Georgie

Beautiful George Hardy has never been alone. With some utterly undefineable charisma he is able to attract and then surround himself with a coterie of friends, quasi-servants and general hangers-on. The cerebral Dr Potter hovers around him, gradually exhausting Georgie's good will and his purse. Meanhwile, poor Myrtle is so devoted to him that she has become an it that loves, while Pompey Jones, with his birth-bruised upper lip and a dark heart, knows he is closer to what Georgie really wants. Between them these three tell their stories, inextricably entwined with Georgie's own, and punctuated by the drawn-out procedures that the taking of photographs demanded in the 19th century. Georgie is a force of nature, pulling them all along in his wake. But he couldn't stop his father dying; he can't deflect his own desires; and ultimately nothing will help him dodge whatever Crimean bullet bears his name.

At first glance this is a light book. Sparsely told, Myrtle's first story (of six: two told by each companion) seems far lighter and simpler than the events that it portrays. But it soon becomes clear that Beryl Bainbridge spares not a single one of her sentences in this novel: each is necessary, a grain of oxidized silver that permits us eventually to see the full picture of these tragic, twisted lives. The more stories we read, the more the truth of the characters' history is filled in, and we are given not merely the appearance of past events but also their sinister import. We gradually learn the truth about Potter's dysfunctional marriage, Georgie's friendship with Pompey, and the provenance of Georgie's children. Always there is something more, some other dimension to the events already described, that change their aspect completely and leave the reader guessing: is this really the truth? Is the truth yet to come?

Indeed, despite the apparent simplicity, this book can perform arcane and legion magic tricks on the mind of the reader. Each chapter begins with a description of a photograph to be taken at some point before it ends, ironically summarizing some subtler aspect of the story. And the first time it switches voices between characters is a sublime event, so apparently effortless is the manoeuvre. The gradual dissolution of one narrator's senses in the heat of war is terrifying in its sense of rationality falling unstoppably downhill. And as the dirty secrets of each character start to tumble out one by one, littering their understandings of each other, so too does the dirt and blood of war multiply and spread, filth piling upon filth, with our four characters scrabbling over the dead and dying to keep their heads above its level, still climbing, still devoted to Master Georgie, right up to the book's cold, cold climax.