Paul Torday book review: The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers

Sharp-eyed aficionados of Paul Torday’s darkly understated but compulsive novels will remember Charlie Summers ‘s tableau appearance as a dodgy dog-food salesman in Girl on the Landing. Now, he reappears, gloriously, as the benign but terminally dishonest anti-hero of Mr Torday’s fourth novel.

Charlie’s posh alter-ego, Eck Chetwode-Talbot, the terribly nice army officer turned reluctant city man, and his love interest, cool, tragic Harriet, have also appeared before: Eck as a bit player in The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce and Harriet as the bereaved fiancée  in his flagship book, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. This technique is what Mr Torday calls ‘a magpie thing – when I re-read books, I think ‘there’s more to that character, I’m going to use him again’.’

Set against a background of the financial markets calling time on the boom years, Charlie has ‘long experience of starting new businesses; one might add that he has equally long experience of watching them fold’. When he bumps into Eck, he is starting yet another career, selling bogus Japanese dog food, and their paths are destined to keep crossing.

One could argue that the kindly Eck is equally bogus in his role as investment advisor; it’s just that an accident of birth has led him on a more fortuitous route than that of the hapless Charlie, who has nothing to live on except his wits and dubious charm.

The story’s climax – when the irrepressible Charlie gets his chance to redeem himself in heroic fashion – is a bit like the poignant finale of Blackadder Goes Forth, when he and Baldrick go ‘over the top’ and you suddenly realise that it isn’t funny any more. Because Charlie is such a hilarious creation, whose antics propel this entertaining book along, his end proves a startlingly effective piece of writing from this most original of authors. Highly recommended.

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* Buy The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers

* An interview with Paul Torday written by Kate Green appears in this week’s Country Life, February 10