By Matthew d'Ancona
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday. 370 pp. $25
London journalist Matthew d'Ancona's first novel, "Going East," caused a stir when it was published in England last year -- understandably, because it is striking in both style and substance. D'Ancona's graceful prose immediately impresses in an idyllic opening scene that introduces the glamorous Taylor family as they picnic in a London park. Father Jeremy, at 62, is a hugely successful investment banker blessed with "a look of timeless Roman distinction." Mother Jenny gave up a diplomatic career to seek "a life of true contentment" in marriage. The older children, Ben and Mia, have "their father's gnawing ambition secreted in their marrow" -- Ben is making a bundle as a financial adviser while Mia prospers as a political consultant. The college-age twins, Caitlin and Lara, have "rampaged through adolescence" with "wit and resolve on their side." On Ben's 30th birthday, these six have come together for croquet, champagne and caviar beneath "the late-afternoon sky and its first streaks of apple pink." We are told that "a golden thread" unites them and that "Jeremy and Jenny Taylor had protected and nurtured their four children with teeth bared at the world, determined that no deliberate harm or random misfortune should come their way." The day's only minor irritation is that Mia must go to the airport to pick up a boyfriend and cannot accompany the others to Ben's house for further celebration.
Abruptly, d'Ancona's plot kicks in with a vengeance: A bomb demolishes Ben's house and kills five Taylors; only Mia, off on her errand, is spared. The motive for the attack is at first a mystery, but police note that Ben's neighbor was a prominent Ulster Protestant and decide that a Republican splinter group bombed the wrong house. Mia, traumatized, survives the ordeal with the help of pills and therapy, but her pain never stops. ("Those who spoke of 'closure' did not understand the nature of loss, not true loss. They did not grasp the final truth: that there were no answers, no symmetries, no final acts.") Sick of politics and her rich friends, she leaves fashionable London and moves to the unfashionable East End, where she works in a rather shabby health club. D'Ancona paints a vivid picture of this neighborhood in transition: "Bengalis, Somalis, refugees, artists, writers: All had come to settle around the ancient source of the city, clustering by its earliest foundations and its first spring. Old tensions had faded and new ones had arisen in their place. Cockney and Muslim rubbed shoulders, sometimes growling as they did so. A third, quite different tribe -- soft-handed and middle-class -- had insinuated itself between them, colonising the lofts and cottages, its members staring at the pavement whenever trouble arose. Millionaires looked down from penthouse apartments on the welfare nation beneath."
Mia befriends the health club's lovable but hapless owner and outwits a local politician who is trying to shut them down. She nurses a homeless alcoholic who nearly freezes to death on her front steps. She first scorns, then beds, a "teenaged Neanderthal" who comes to work at the club and proves to have a good heart. In all this, Mia's pain is ever-present, but she has no questions about who killed her family.
Then Claude, an old boyfriend, invites her to a posh charity ball that attracts "not only the normal quota of aristocrats, film stars, Cabinet ministers, and Arab princelings but two younger members of the royal family." After four years, Mia revisits her old world, and a ghastly world it is. She is stunned to learn that one of her friends has married a supremely obnoxious talk show host: "Natasha might as well have said that she had recently wed Jack the Ripper or Pol Pot." She greets another old friend: "Her sheath dress did little to conceal her painful thinness. No dairy, no wheat, Mia thought. Probably no anything. Toothpaste in the handbag and therapy at a hundred quid an hour."
D'Ancona is at pains to demonstrate that London's elite is variously shallow, nasty, pathetic, degenerate and disgusting. At the climax of this horrid event, Mia comes upon the talk show host and his wife cavorting with a waiter and waitress in a "dressing room" with the aid of cash, cocaine and "a leather paddle." After the party, a drunken Claude summons the courage to tell Mia that her brother Ben's "financial services" included laundering money for East End gangsters, who probably bombed his house because he cheated them.
At that point, this novel about a grief-stricken woman, set against a vivid portrait of today's London, shifts gears and becomes a thriller, as Mia sets out to confront those who killed her family. And it begins to falter. The plot turns on that most ancient of devices: the hero who, against all logic, won't go to the police. In fact, poor Mia is in urgent need of a Harry Bosch or Inspector Rebus to guide her. At one point, she invades a sordid "tableside dancing club" and demands that its denizens tell her the whereabouts of a legendary crime lord; they explode with laughter, and the reader is tempted to join in. Later, Mia hides in the loo and climbs through a window to confront her nemesis. (Did Nancy Drew ever hide in the loo?) D'Ancona even recycles the venerable scene wherein the bad person hands the good person his gun and says, "Shoot me," and the good person (being good) can't do it.
"Going East" is never less than readable, and its thriller plot is no worse than a thousand others, but the novel was far more impressive when d'Ancona focused on his polished, sophisticated portrait of corruption and change in modern London. The author, who is in his mid-thirties and is the deputy editor of and a political columnist for the Sunday Telegraph, should venture beyond the thriller genre in his next outing. His talent is such that he doesn't need to set off bombs to impress us.