The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee

Purchased from the Book Depository

Honor Tait is “an old-school journalistic heroine”. The present in this novel is 1997, but Honor comes to it with more than a half-century of being a journalistic witness to history. She interviewed Franco before the Spanish Civil War started — wearing a swimsuit because he demanded an interview with her when she was on the beach. She was with the Allied troops when they entered Buchenwald — and won a Pulitzer Prize for her story on the discovery of the concentration camp. As a foreign correspondent, she was also present in Korea (and interviewed MacArthur), brought Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s thoughts to the world when she was on her deathbed and covered the Vietnam War. But there is another side to her as well. She has always been a femme fatale (three husbands, the latest a popular movie director, recently deceased, and countless affairs) and spent time in Hollywood. Sinatra, Monroe and Crosby are also part of her journalistic history and who knows how many of them she slept with.

But Honor is approaching her 80th birthday and, like so many journalists, has lived on the “spend as you go” financial plan. Her economic survival is dependent on a friendly book publisher who produced a life-saving volume collecting some of her best work — volume two is about to appear and a third is in proof form. Honor needs them to sell to continue her current style of life — and that means granting an interview to promote the second volume of her collection:

She had two hours to conceal the secrets of her life. Evidence of vanity, foolishness and worse must be expunged. Domestic disorder was not a concern; the maid had remedied that this morning. And though Honor Tait might have been a slattern by inclination, she was never a collector, of people or of things. Divorce, bereavement, a house fire, a stringently unsentimental nature and the protocols of regular travel had ensured that, for a woman of her years, the flotsam was minimal. She had always travelled light. In love, as in life, it was hand baggage only. So what was left here in the London apartment? Which piece of junk, what accidental survivor of time’s winnowing, would betray her?

The reporter who is about to arrive is one Tamara Sim, a “regular casual” at The Monitor, a national newspaper with pretentions, who is looking for a more secure footing, i.e. a full-time post. She’s in her twenties and her knowledge of Honor is limited — the piece on “the wife of a Chinese dictator from the 1950s” was a set text in her Media Studies course and that is about all she has read. She has been commissioned to do a 4,000-word piece for S*nday, the paper’s upscale weekend magazine known more for the credentials of its contributors (Nobel and Booker prize winners) than its actual content. Tamara hardly fits the mold:

Tamara worked four days a week on The Monitor as a freelance sub editor and writer for Psst!, the paper’s Saturday celebrity gossip and TV listings magazine — a brash oik to S*nday’s snooty metaphysician. The world described in the primary-coloured pages of Psst!, peopled by sex-addicted soap stars and feuding boy bands, anorexic footballers’ molls and drug-taking TV hosts, was as remote from the intellectual aristrocrats of S*nday as was Pluto, in both its planetary and Disney incarnations. Lyra Moore’s [she is S*nday's editor] magazine, irreproachably elegant and cerebral, was regarded as the British riposte to the New Yorker, with the added appeal of pictures.

I’ve confessed previously a fondness for newspaper novels, so I approached The Spoiler with a positive frame of mind. Added to that was the appeal of what author McAfee personally brings to the project. On the professional side, she has worked in newspapers for more than three decades, including a stint as Arts and Literary Editor of the Financial Times and she founded the Guardian Review. So she has met and worked with more than one version of Tamara Sim in her career,

Perhaps more important to the success of The Spoiler, however, is McAfee’s private background — she is married to British author Ian McEwan. In the literary world, McEwan is as close as you can get to being a “celebrity” and he has experienced both the ups and downs of press coverage that come with that designation in the world of journalism. McAfee knows as much about what it is like to be Honor Tait as she does Tamara Sim.

Tamara shows up for the reluctantly-granted interview totally unprepared — she hasn’t actually read the new book and her “research” has been limited to looking at the Monitor’s clipping file on Honor, mainly the Hollywood aspect, with particular attention to the sexy pictures. There is more Psst! than S*nday to her planned story — she wants sex, celebrities and scandal, not ancient journalistic history like discovering concentration camps. Honor, who wants no part of the interview at all, is only willing to revisit the circumstances of the serious journalistic pieces that are being recycled in the book — and would far prefer that the reporter read those instead of talking to her. In no time at all, using her inherent reporter’s skills, she reduces Tamara to tears by exposing her shoddy preparation for the interview.

That establishes the two ongoing story themes of the novel and McAfee is faithful to them throughout the book. Tait’s social life at the moment is pretty much restricted to the Monday Club, a monthly meeting of younger, male sycophants at her Maida Vale residence, which Tamara (who crashes a gathering of the Monday Club) zooms in on as the possible “sexy” angle for her story — what scandal lies behind these poseurs who regularly visit an elderly woman? On the other side of the coin, Tamara needs to keep performing for Psst! — she does the A lists (Ten Best/Ten Worst — haircuts, diets, cellulite thighs, that sort of thing) and other lists (What’s In/What’s Out, Going Up/Going Down, Good Week/Bad Week). If you read newspapers at all, you know about those lists which seem to show up on every other page. Somebody has to compile them — and I can assure you the “journalists” who do all aspire to be doing something else.

I have done no more so far in this review than outline how McAfee sets her story. After this, she sets both Honor and Tamara’s stories in motion and performs admirably in keeping the novelistic version of the story together.

It is time for full disclosure, before offering an assessment. I spent 27 years in the newspaper business, the last half as a senior editor and publisher — it is a coincidence of timing that I left the business in 1997, the present day of this novel. I employed and mentored versions of ambitious Tamara; I dealt with scores of versions of Honor (or their agents) complaining on the other end of the phone or, even worse, in person. I also supervised Canada’s largest international news agency for a number of years, so I even have experience with the foreign correspondent part of Honor’s background (rest assured, they are a very special breed — and McAfee portrays it well). It is impossible for me to just be a “reader” of this novel — so bear that in mind when considering the following assessment.

What’s good about The Spoiler? What works best for me is the way that McAfee uses the superstructure of her story to explore in significant satirical detail the way that contemporary print media work. Just as an example, she has an extended riff on what departments are located where in the Mirror building — Psst! and TV listings are in the basement, S*nday is on the top floor, along with the editor’s office (he’s rarely there as he enjoys visiting aristocratic friends in the country). Aspiration in the Mirror is literal — moving up a floor, or more, is promotion. If you want to learn about how newspapers work, this novel is an excellent source. Equally strong is McAfee’s understanding and portrayal of the tension between reporter and celebrity subject — in the final analysis, she doesn’t come down on either side, since she knows both equally well.

What’s not good? The author has a tendency to go overboard on some detail. I love newspapers, but the repetition started to grate even with me. McAfee also employs another device that just doesn’t work. Honor is composing a “coda” to introduce volume three of her collected works, a look back at the Pulitzer-prize winning story about Buchenwald. She retreats to working on it whenever she is upset in the present (which means most of the novel) and there are more than 20 versions of the opening paragraphs in the novel. Tamara does the same thing with her magazine piece. In both cases, it is interesting the first four or five times — after that, it becomes annoying.

Despite those quibbles, I heartily recommend this novel for anyone who is even mildly interested in how the news gets presented to you in print form — be it on dead trees or online. McAfee knows the business and has captured it exceptionally well, acknowledging that there is some exaggeration for effect. What makes The Spoiler special, however, is her understanding of the “other” side, the persecuted subject. As the novel moves to a close, the conflict between these two points of view becomes ever more important — and McAfee uses her knowledge of both to great advantage.

(A special thanks to Kimbofo at Reading Matters who drew my attention to this book. Kim is a journalist as well and we exchange touts on “newspaper” novels. Click on her blog title for a link to her review of The Spoiler.)

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9 Responses to “The Spoiler, by Annalena McAfee”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Really like the sounds of this one. The first quote sealed it for me:

    “In love, as in life, it was hand baggage only.”

    I can picture the two women squaring off, and I agree with you that 20+ versions are too much.

    But apart from that…sounds good

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: In its own way, this novel is kind of “journalism noir”. McAfee’s journalistic talents show in her prose — it is efficient, not fancy, and she carries her story and descriptions forward very effectively. While there are elements of caricature to both Hanna and Tamara that is more to make them “everywomen” than laziness — I came to appreciate both as the novel went on.

  3. kimbofo Says:

    Thanks for the link.

    I know what you mean about the “coda” but I quite liked them and chuckled at them all. God knows I used to compose those in my head when I was writing features. I still do when I’m thinking of how I will write certain reviews for the blog ;-)

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kim: My problem with the “coda” and Tamara’s repeated attempts at her lead paras (which I found more amusing and interesting) was that what started out as a worthwhile literary device started to look like the author was just escaping from some hole she had dug. It wasn’t a major problem, but I didn’t find it up to the quality of the rest of the book.

    And I should emphasize in the overall scheme of the novel it was a minor failing.

  5. savidgereads Says:

    This sounds like a great novel. Weirdly I have wanted to read it since I learnt that she was McEwan’s wife. This of course shouldnt mean the book is excellent and yet for some reason in my head it does.

    Working in the industry, though only in the last decade so its all very different I am sure, I think the subject matter would fascinate me. In part actually to see how much things have changed. Not sure if I would love or loathe the ‘coda’ though.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: The McEwan’s wife angle plays two ways — curiosity on the positive side; did the publisher tilt in her favor because of her spouse (and overlook problems) on the negative. It is worth noting that the book cover and author blurb do make no mention of McEwan (and I have noted that some reviewers have also avoided mentioning it). I pondered a bit before including it — and did, because it definitely had an impact on my reading.

    I would lean to the positive opinion. Her personal experiences with McEwan’s own media adventures (a number of which were pretty gruesome) add depth to what Honor is going through in her problems with the reporter.

    Also, McAfee obviously has had experience in the newspaper business well after the period when the book is set and has put that to good use. So I think you will find that she “cheats” a little bit in the accuracy of her observations on what produced the current media state. I don’t fault that because it allows for a better understanding of what that current state is. I’m out of the business but certainly still a reader — and I think her portrayal of both the institutions and the characters in them is quite good. I think you’ll find the sketches of some of Tamara’s colleagues will remind you of characters you’ve met in the business — I certainly did.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I wasn’t actually especially convinced by the quotes on this one, but I note that you were persuaded with the understanding of the industry (which given your understanding is a major point).

    A little bit of cheating seems within the novelist’s gift as you say. After all, it’s not reportage.

    I’m glad the publicity is generally not playing up her marriage. That may well have helped get her published, but now she is published the work has to stand or fall on its own. The coda sounds a bit tedious, but otherwise it sounds quite successful within its frame of reference (a good book, but not one aiming to be great literature necessarily).

    I have a little list of journalism-inspired books being put together based on your blog and there are others on that list ahead of this one. It’s on there, but not near the top I think. Still, I think it is on there.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It is hard for me to give a balanced assessment of this novel, since the central story line speaks so much to my personal experience — and McAfee delivers very well on that line. I’d say her journalism experience influenced the prose style — it isn’t poetic lyricism by any means, but rather straightfoward and entirely acceptable narrative (as I think the quotes illustrate). In addition to the strength of the “industry” story line, I thought both Honor and Tamara were well-realized characters, even if both are a bit of a stereotype. The novel does rank as one of the more enjoyable reads of the year, while certainly not being the most challenging.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That was the impression I’d gained from your review. There’s always a place on my shelf for those kinds of books, among the more challenging kind. Too much of anything after all stales the appetite.

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