Pulse is a designer in 80s London, a working-class boy made good. The day after a haunting dream, still tired and disoriented, he attends an interview with a famous, upper class and distinctly odd designer, Patrick Lloyd-Lewis. When he learns that the woman in his dream is the designer’s late wife, Freia, he decides to take the position and obsessively pursues clues to her death.
It’s a wonderful premise and the prose is gorgeous. The setting is atmospheric, the imagery vivid, the world of Pulse claustrophobic. Lloyd-Lewis’ home, with its bizarre smell of decay and its eerie cast of family, staff and hangers-on, is quite spooky. Pulse’s train journeys, where he is haunted by the reflection who is not quite him, capture that sense of being not just between places but between selves. And yet…
The Gilded Ones feels more like a series of set pieces than a novel with a clear narrative arc. I didn’t understand either the reasons for Pulse’s obsession or its resolution. At the end there is an oddly prosaic passage where the plot and themes are neatly explained, as if a note to the editor was left between the pages of the manuscript, but it didn’t chime with what I’d read.
The author writes a lot of description. Both the author and the protagonist are designers so it makes sense that there should be a strong feel for detail and a heightened sense of how the visual creates mood. It’s also well written and perhaps that’s the problem – it makes it harder to be ruthless and cut what doesn’t fit the story.
Even the opening dream sequence is packed with specifics – about the landscape, the people, the decisions of the protagonist. Dreams (and prologues) should be more spiky and impressionistic.
A couple of other niggles – a lot of the period detail was off. There was talk of ‘political correctness’ and ‘empowerment’ and ‘engagement’. There were people wearing flares, carrying bottles of water and speaking in Valley Girl uptalk. I also struggled with the way the author rendered dialogue phonetically for characters with strong regional accents – as if RP is ‘normal’ speech.
The Gilded Ones has many positives. It feels like the author has something interesting to say – about class, about art, about the search for meaning – but hasn’t quite worked out how to say it. I’d be curious to see his next book.
I received a copy of The Gilded Ones from the publisher via Netgalley.
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