Advent Calendar 2016 – Day 13

Another one of the reviews I did for the old Whispers of Wickedness website, all of which are currently archived on The Future Fire website.

NB: I haven’t bothered to include any links, as it’s a) too time consuming and b) many of the sites referenced are now dead and/or missing, but if you want to check something out then visit The Future Fire archive where the links, if still live, are in place.

THREE THINGS ABOUT ME

By Aliya Whiteley

Reviewed by Peter Tennant

For those who don’t know, Aliya Whiteley writes a column for Whispers under her nom de guerre The Blue Pootle, and this book is one of the initial dozen titles published as part of the Macmillan New Writing initiative, to which thousands of wannabe Jilly Coopers and Dan Browns submitted their fledgling efforts and beloved first born.

The premise here is very simple; seven disparate individuals are sent off to a seaside town for training as customer services staff for an insurance company under the watchful eye of manager Rob Church. And as part of the training procedure they are asked to list three things about themselves, only two of which are true (hence the title).

To get the negativity out of the way first, my basic problem is that this scenario doesn’t quite ring true. Having been employed by an insurance company for over twenty years, I find the idea that seven such individuals as these would want to work for an insurance company almost as fanciful as the thought that an insurance company would be so hard up for phone fodder it would take them on, let alone finance a training jaunt. The scenario is an artificial one, created for its comic potential and not to be taken at face value, a parody of some downmarket reality TV show where various eccentrics and oddballs are thrown together and asked to complete random tasks rather than a seriously intended depiction of modern business practice. The other problem I have with the book is that at the end, with a couple of exceptions, nobody really seems much further forward; all of the characters are more or less back doing exactly what they were doing before this chain of events began, though that in itself may be an important part of whatever message Three Things About Me has for the reader.

Having derided both slices of bread in this sandwich I’m more than happy to concede that the filling is exquisitely tasty. If the framing scenario is artificial, the situations which the book addresses are anything but, Three Things About Me evolving into a black comedy of manners and business life, a sometimes barbed satire of the white collar world.

More specifically, it is a character driven story, and Whiteley excels in giving us individuals who are both larger than life and yet also thoroughly grounded in the everyday, so that we believe in them regardless of their foibles and eccentricities.

There’s wannabe rock star Gareth, who’s just filling in time until he gets the call from EMI. Gareth falls in love with Hilary, an outward bound type from New Zealand, who is haunted by the memory of a terrible event in her past. Alma is the former film star, now fallen on hard times and finding rather too much comfort in a bottle, while the unworldly Amie was raised in a religious community in Wales, from which she and her father were exiled when he transgressed one of the rules. Samuel is an elderly man, a sort of Walter Mitty character who is under the impression that he was a costumed crime fighter in the past. Extremely gullible, Sam is the ideal foil for the amoral Rose, a teenage sex siren who finds herself in desperate need of a good man when her personal life goes pear shaped. And then there is Charlotte, the only one of these people who actually seems to fit, forced to seek clerical work beneath her station while awaiting the outcome of a sexual harassment case she is bringing against her former employers. Charlotte focuses on manager Rob Church in a relationship that has strong echoes of Frank and Hot Lips from the old TV series MASH, if anyone can remember that (the comparison is more apposite than it at first appears, in that this is in some senses very much a war zone), but there are dark secrets in Charlotte’s past and poor Rob doesn’t know what he’s getting himself into.

There’s a lot of fun here and a lot of wry humour, with some light shone onto the darker side of human psychology as the characters deal with personal demons and interact, both in and outside the office. And Whiteley is excellent at relationship stuff, showing how we use and manipulate each other, the lies that we tell even to ourselves, and also revealing that there’s a core of goodness in most of us. She’s superb at the showstopper scene, the feel good factor boosted to the max, as when the three failures from the course perform at the firm’s Christmas bash and blow everybody’s socks off.

On the satirical side of things, the enforced bonhomie of strangers thrown together and the attempt to create that esprit de corps beloved of ‘enlightened’ office managers comes over particularly well. Rob Church is the patsy, a true believer in the corporate gospel that ‘we’re all in this together and working toward a common goal’, that there is ‘no I in team’ to use one of the more inane slogans such types spout as if holy writ. And, of course, he gets screwed over worse than anyone when the mask of corporate altruism falls away to reveal the cutthroat reality in which profit margins are the only consideration. In a resolution fraught with malevolence and irony, the firm decides to transfer its business to a call centre in Bombay, and so even those who passed the course find themselves unemployed unless they’re prepared to relocate, the subtext being that such is modern commercial life people, even the most individual of them, are reduced to consumer units every bit as disposable as the products they sell, and in response to this Whiteley gives us the wonderful triumph of the oddballs, the revenge of the rejects, the square pegs gloriously cocking a snook at all those round holes. It’s the perfect note with which to bring down the curtain on a novel that’s sexy, sassy and as brimming with attitude as a line manager who has a budget surplus at the end of the tax year.

Three things about Three Things About Me:-

1) It’s an effortless read, one which will slip down as easily as vanilla ice cream on a summer day

2) It’s going to make Aliya Whiteley a household name and swell her bank balance to Rowling like proportions

3) It’s non-stop fun, from the first line to the last sentence

Only two of these are true, and sadly I suspect #2 is not one of them, but everybody likes it when reviewers are proved wrong so you are all welcome to dash out and buy a copy of the book in an effort to leave me with egg on my face. Go on. You know you want to.

Three Things About Me by Aliya Whiteley. Macmillan New Writing hb, 320pp, £12.99. Available from all good book shops or from Amazon UK

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