Close-up: A new chapter in a distinguished creative career

Does a master copywriter make a master fiction writer? Andrew Cracknell reviews David Abbott's long-awaited debut novel.

Surely the most exquisite torture is one that leaves you not in screaming pain but in screaming anguish, physically intact to live every second of the rest of your life emotionally and mentally eviscerated.

David Abbott starts The Upright Piano Player with an event possibly even worse than causing the accidental death of your own child, bringing to an end a sequence of unconnected catastrophes that destroy Henry Cage, the central character. It's a book exploring guilt, pride and blame, which, in a time when Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh were more in vogue, might have been described as Catholic.

Cage's matrimonial sufferings could be seen as retribution for his abandonment of his wife and son, but there, as with his other tragedies, Cage is unfortunate; though the original sin was not on his part but on hers, his character dictates that his reaction is one that will eventually punish him as much as her. And he is involved in three deaths, none of which can be blamed on him but for all of which in some way he bears the guilt.

He is correct and unbending and could well, in a cursory encounter, be described as a grumpy old man. Those who want to see much of contemporary life filleted and deftly skewered in a few precisely chosen words will delight in his instant dissection of aggravations as diverse as the faux mateyness of Starbucks to the venality and soullessness of business life. In a McEwan-esque sequence, he describes the helpless horror of being crushed among the raucous revellers on the Embankment on Millennium night.

Opinions on Cage's character will, I suspect, break along generational lines. Those of his age will at least understand why he reacts the way he does. Others will, as they do with Kazuo Ishiguro's butler Stevens in The Remains Of The Day, yearn for him to bend a little, silently pleading with him in one key scene to overcome his frozen reserve and dance, just once, with his doomed wife.

Yet Cage is a compassionate man, prepared even to be sanguine in the face of a thug threatening his security. He runs his organisation in the belief that morality cannot end at the office door, its compass becoming even more essential as Cage navigates the business world. His concern for the welfare and feelings of his staff at his consultancy is one of many modus operandi that reflect those of Abbott himself.

But in his private life, Cage's same ungiving morality is his undoing, through a failure to understand that to forgive a wrong is not to condone it, does not involve a loss of dignity - and that failure to forgive can lead at least to regret and, at worst, to acute and toxic remorse.

If you want advertising anecdote, you won't find it here. Abbott has moved on, to an affecting tale of a man perhaps almost too upright for the times in which he now lives.

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