We’ve hosted Charles Harris in the secret library, and now it’s time to review his novel. Funny and bleak, The Breaking of Liam Glass presents a dark but vibrant portrait both of Britain’s urban communities and the media that entertains them.
Teenager Liam Glass has been stabbed on a London housing estate. Journalist Jason Crowthorne, acting from a mixture of professional instinct, self-preservation and ambition, convinces himself that hawking the story to a national tabloid would lead to an increase in awareness of the important social issue of knife crime. That it would save his miserable career is just a fortunate by-product.
In just over 400 breathless pages we follow Jason’s progress over the following day as he grapples with the police, other reporters, publicists, estate residents, politicians and the small matter of Liam’s own family (real and pretended).
The premise, of course, is that the media are particularly amoral. Nothing matters to journalists other than a big byline and – these days – some job security. Jason and the brilliantly named national journo, Zoe Sharpleside, think in headlines. They are happy to cross and double-cross each other and manipulate all concerned, including each other, especially each other, in pursuit of what they self-importantly call the truth. Now this is not an especially new angle to take, but while Harris takes some delight in presenting the outrageous antics of the national tabloid, the Post, he is rather more sympathetic towards the skint local title – or, at least, sympathetic to the idea that local communities are disserved by skint local titles. (What does this mean in the context of the Grenfell tragedy?) Besides, his journalist baddies are drawn well and we take pleasure in despising them.
Jason is the only character who is really fleshed out, though some minor characters receive enough attention for us to feel that we know them (others, though, are caricatures: I feel that Harris is a bit harsh in his portrayal of Katrina Glass in particular). And the result is that we often root for Jason even when we know he deserves none of our support. This moral ambiguity is central to the novel: there are no heroes in Harris’ city, only the chaos that comes from the cause and effect of a million different and random interactions. We smile as Jason attempts to impose order and take control, often by doing something that makes the situation worse. There’s a lack of decent information (if only there was a decent and trustworthy source of news…) and as a result everyone is winging it as they desperately trying to get by or get ahead.
I enjoyed this tale, which captures the energy and haphazard nature of living in a city. It’s funny, concerned and sharp, and like the best satire, asks serious questions.
Thanks to Marble City Publishing for the review copy.