Perfidious Albion is a book, like Tim Lott’s Rumours of a Hurricane, that functions as a state of the nation address. All those people bemoaning the triviality of the modern novel, asking why people aren’t writing about the world we’re living through – this one is for you. We find ourselves in Edmundsbury, a small town in eastern England, post-Brexit. A social gathering is in full flow. Our guide is Jess, whose boyfriend Robert used to view the world as she did but who now seems to view her as one more stakeholder in need of being managed; the company in which she finds herself would be described by some as the liberal media elite. The main topic of conversation centres upon an absent guest, Byron Stroud, until the party is disrupted by a mask clad individual obscurely threatening attendees with URLs and dates and times. We meet Darkin, an elderly widower living in a flat that developers, Downton, are keen to get him out of, reading The Record (which we take to be Byers’ version of The Daily Mail), a newspaper in which ‘a near-dystopian vision of England emerged’:
“The country was overrun, under threat, increasingly incapable. Hordes of immigrants massed at its borders. Its infrastructure frayed at the seams. Basic morality was eroding at an alarming rate, worn down by tolerance, permissiveness, turpitude.”
Darkin, we learn, “found this terrifying.” Byers calmly introduces us to this world – we see Jess interact with her colleague Deepa, we see Robert being pushed by his boss Silas, we see Darkin intimidated by a guy called Jones. Ever so gradually, the circle widens: we meet Trina, who works for a slightly mysterious tech firm called Green, and we meet Hugo Bennington, a slightly more sympathetic version of Nigel Farage (but only slightly). We learn that Jess and Robert’s relationship is not what you would strictly speaking call healthy – in that Jess has created an online persona with which to browbeat her boyfriend in the comments section of his article (readers may be reminded of Andrew O’Hagan’s The Secret Life). Trina, who earned herself a job having created a workforce management system, reacts badly to Bennington’s face on TV one night and tweets #whitemalegenocide.lol – readers of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (another key text for this book) will be able to hazard a guess as to what happens next. Trina – overnight a frothing potential terrorist according to Twitter – and Darkin – elevated to emblem of a dying England – live in the same development, both clinging on to their fragile homesteads in the face of various pressures. Insert an easily influenced Bennington, an overly ambitious journalist in the form of Robert, a mysterious group promising to reveal people’s entire online lives, shady puppet masters, venal co-workers, eager apparatchiks, and belligerent bully boys of various stripes and you have a satire so up to the minute it could have just, this second, been overtaken by the actual news and rendered nonfiction.
Byers’ sentences crack like whips. This is a twenty-first century Withnail in many ways. And arguably with writing this good, it could have been almost enough. Perfidious Albion could have set a dozen hares racing (as it does) and then spiral up into a froth of inanity – and it would still have been pretty damn good. But if you imagine each of those racing hares as, instead, a harnessed pack of foam mouthed stallions tethered to a dazzling narrative horse and carriage (we know we’re stretching the point but hang in there) with Byers half-standing, half-sitting in the coachman’s seat – well, that’s what you’ve got here in Perfidious Albion. You read and you admire the sentences. You read and you admire the structure of the chapters. You read and you worry about whether he’ll be able to sustain what he’s doing all of the way through – and then you reach the end and you helplessly jump to your feet like Pickering congratulating Henry Higgins with a rousing chorus of, By God, I think he’s done it. If you look at the world about you and think, no wonder so many novelists are ‘going historical’, how do you possibly convincingly write about the hectic mess in which we find ourselves…? Know that Byers has done it. If this novel was just the story of Jess, and her various, online, created selves, and Robert, in all his fragile vanity, it would be enough for a good book (identity politics is a big theme for Perfidious Albion). But has taken an elegant set up and built and built and built – until he has a mighty edifice. This is a mirror held up to the world I live in – a world in which “there was… no attainable respite or refuge from the tangle”.
Obviously it’s a scathing satire, and you’ll read and ruefully nod and sadly smile and possibly weep and wail and gnash your teeth. Perfidious Albion is a big book, a book of ideas, a book that will have you saying YES at the top of your voice, a book you may read in a single sitting, as I did, a book you will want to press on other people.
Any Cop?: It’s both a blinder and a belter. In case it isn’t obvious: we loved it and heartily recommend you stop reading whatever lesser book you’re reading and read this instead.