This is another debut novel – that’s two in a row – but this is in stark contrast to the tech thriller which was Daemon. From the bookshelf then: “This Bleeding City” is the first published novel by Alex Preston, and as an English graduate who became a trader in London, and then went on to become a writer, has a certain parallel and insight to the novel’s main protagonist.
However, given some of the events in the book, I hope much of the events are from observation rather than experience.
The prologue opens as Charlie Wales, the book’s main character, forgets that his small child is still in his car in the car park as he gets absorbed with his work. He suddenly remembers hours later, and in a panic pitches through the crowds, returning to find his infant son unconscious – and we don’t know whether he lives or dies. This effectively sets the tone for the whole novel.
Set against the recent economic meltdown in the financial markets around the world, it tells the story of Charlie, and his friends Henry and Vero and their journey from their time at university in Edinburgh through unemployed times in London, to Charlie’s rise as an analyst and finally trader for the Silverbirch company, his dropping out for the woman he loves, and his going back again to achieve greater fortune, though that never seems to be enough.
In some ways it’s a character study, amplified through the greed and constant envy amongst the climbing financial markets. Charlie sees himself as being the poor relation both financially and culturally to his friends, he being from a lower middle class family in Worthington, and they from wealthier parts of England, and in Vero’s case, France, and spends much of the novel attempting to climb to the next rung, and as soon as he makes it up one he almost instantly sees the next and moves off to that.
Having worked on the fringe of the finance sector (the company I work for is mentioned in the book) I can find it fairly believable, and Preston writes the characters well, tracking the innate raw intelligence of most of the characters, which is then undermined by their pathological flaws for either wealth or status or sheer indulgence.
Preston inserts some great characters into the plot – the tragic teeth stained Madison, who completely sees the insanity of her life, but who is unable to pull out of her job, so wed to it is she, and so determined to prove herself with her insight that the markets will soon fail. She is one of the the most fascinating people in the book, and perhaps represents rationality in that those around her aren’t at all interested in reality. She in turn links to the mentored Ray, who is completely outside the financial world as a low income adolescent, and sees Madison’s and Charlie’s choice of job and life often to be somewhat deranged.
Henry and Vero both weave in and out of the world of greed which is constantly associated with the markets, and seemingly are always better off when they’re away from it, though not directly, but mainly via Charlie, they all become entwined in the downward spiral and at the end I only really had sympathy for Henry, but it’s a sort of flawed sympathy somehow.
Charlie himself is carefully portrayed to try to let you maintain some sympathy for him throughout most of the novel, and only really towards the end (not wanting to put in any spoilers here) do we really see how he truly is – or at least what he has become – and eventually, I would argue, he gets what he deserves in many ways. Even then, even through the ups in his social status he maintains a small flat in Lodnon with poor heating, no television and an old car, as he reads compulsively and trawls real-estate website looking at possible future homes.
Overall I’d say this is a book well worth reading, even if you have no interest in the market – and no knowledge of them is needed to follow the story – just to see how someone with a bit of a chip on their shoulder and a fair amount of intelligence can not only wreak havoc in their own life and that of their family, but to almost everyone else they have a relationship with. The writing style is also very smooth, and very fluid given the topic of the storyline which makes some of the more unexpected and shocking events seem a bit removed or glossy which is perhaps the intent as the characters are often on drugs or just have a certain detachment from people and events, which is sometimes the crux of Charlie’s life.