OR: Breakfast with the Borgias

A review that originally appeared on the Case Notes blog at ttapress.com on the 18th of July last year:-

BREAKFAST WITH THE BORGIAS (Arrow Books/Hammer tpb, 248pp, £7.99) is the first book I have read by DBC Pierre, a former winner of the Booker Prize for Vernon God Little, and it feels refreshing to find a writer with this sort of pedigree publishing under the Hammer imprint (in the biographical notes he registers an interest of sorts in the film studio’s output). With previous appearances by Jeanette Winterson and Helen Dunmore we are, thankfully, long past the time when the literati were at pains to put distance between themselves and genre work; on the other hand it seems that on any occasion when the great and the good dip a toe into the waters of genre, the gallery is ready to proclaim a reinvention of the wheel, claims which to the cognoscenti seem as risible as they are tiresome.

I digress, and so shall now step down from my soapbox to tell you about Ariel Panek, an American academic working on Artificial Intelligence, who is on his way to speak at a conference in Amsterdam, and also to hook up with Zeva, a student he has persuaded to share some time with him. Unfortunately his plane is delayed in London due to fog and the airline books Ariel into The Cliffs Hotel, a guesthouse on the Suffolk coast. With no internet connection, Ariel finds himself cut off from the outside world in general and Zeva in particular, and stranded in a place that feels like an annex of hell (I’ve visited the Suffolk coast quite often and it’s rather nice really, though there are parts of Lowestoft you might want to avoid).

Ariel’s discomfort is exacerbated by the hotel’s resident guests, the Border family. Leonard keeps trying to persuade him to invest in some grandiose museum scheme, while wheelchair bound Margot is knowledgeable about quantum physics to the point that she can undermine many of his theories on AI. Daughter Olivia seems the most sensible one, while son Jack is hooked on computer games to the exclusion of pretty much everything else and ward Gretchen is completely bonkers. Both Olivia and Gretchen seem to have designs on Ariel’s body, causing more complications. To make matters even worse the police are out in force to investigate an unspecified crime, with Ariel as a suspect.

Fantastic, not to mention absurd, as all this is, the truth is even more so.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. The central premise, the book’s big reveal, is pretty much old hat and something genre readers of any experience will have seen at least half a dozen times, and the attempt to put a quantum physics spin on it all didn’t really come off, was just a form of speaking in tongues for those, like me, who don’t have the scientific vocabulary. And Pierre rather telegraphs the fact that things are seriously awry by having an airline arrange for passengers stranded in London to be transferred to a hotel in Suffolk, with no real explanation.

More interesting is the attempt to equate death with a loss of connectivity, with the inference that if we don’t exist on the social media landscape then we might as well not exist at all, but this wasn’t really pursued to any great advantage, and the message was slightly diluted by having Gretchen play head games with Zeva. While the idea that we don’t really know who we’re interacting with on social media has some mileage, in context it all came across as a sort of distraction activity, something to keep the reader from realising what was really going on.

The pleasure to be derived from the book was mainly from the characterisation, with the Border family lush monsters with a line in dialogue that delights. To get the most out of this enterprise, you need to ignore the conceptual framework and supposed Gothic sensibility, and instead read it as a black comedy of manners, rich in verbal pyrotechnics and interplay between assorted oddballs, rather like a Wodehouse scenario as written by Pinter, or Whales’ The Old Dark House given a twenty first century/technological makeover. On that level, disregarding all the conceptual baggage, it goes down a treat.

Overall though Breakfast With The Borgias is not especially engaging, rather disappointing in fact, and does no credit to the Hammer brand except by association, being able to nail a Booker Prize winning writer’s name to the mast of genre, which in itself isn’t much of a recommendation as most of the literary set seem to be falling over themselves nowadays to climb aboard the good ship HMS Horror (I repeat myself).

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