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An Orwellian dystopia in the guise of a fast-paced thriller, this is a coolly satirical novel laced with humour, suspense and intrigue.
Welcome to Brighton, a city ruled by a combination of patronage and armed force. The departments have kept their old names but now Transport imposes order and exacts tolls; Welfare processes the undesirables; Audit collects information about everybody, and Parks and Libraries is supposed to stop the flow of contraband.
After years of civil conflict, gated communities separate government workers from the Scoomers cruising the streets in their battered Fiats. But in a secure area four couples from the town's elite keep up a tenuous version of middle class life. They attend each others' dinner parties and drink and gossip. Margaret and Alan think things are getting better; Jack and Denise work long hours and hardly talk to each other; Louise thinks Tim is plotting something, while Siobhan cannot tell her friends the truth about the husband they all think is harmless. Outside, beyond their security gates, the rival Council militias keep an uneasy truce while an underclass forages for survival or waits eagerly for the end of the world. Meanwhile a faction within the Council is planning to make the changes that will give them absolute power.
And then, driving home from a party, Jack and Denise witness a fatal car crash involving one of the Councillors. As the inevitable by-election approaches, they and the people they know are increasingly enmeshed in the town's political manoeuvring and the violence of the streets outside begins to touch even their lives.
Through conversations between the characters, leaked tapes of official meetings, transcribed phone calls, fly posters for prayer meetings, and provocative articles in an illegal newspaper, this haunting vision of corruption and surveillance in a city on the brink of chaos is at once deeply unsettling and frighteningly familiar.
I was pleased to find myself rapidly becoming engrossed in the strange world which Robert Dickinson has created. A fine start, and I look forward to reading more from him when his local government duties allow him the time to complete his next book.
I loved the structure of The Noise of Strangers - it flits between 'standard' narrative, transcripts of phonecalls and meetings, inter-departmental memos, sinister notes, and articles from an underground newspaper. As a satire, it works well, and is completely believable as a 'nightmare present' scenario.
An interesting read which will capture the interest of Brightonians, as the street names and local areas described provide a great visual backdrop to the physical movements in the novel.
Imagine Brighton in chaos. Communities are divided - socially, economically and physically. The council is all-powerful, inconvenient people are 'dealt with', children are controlled and tolls strangle the transport system. Robert Dickinson creates a world that only vaguely resembles our own. This intriguing story brings the issues of political influence, red tape and corruption to the fore - if only by making us relieved that it seems improbable it could come to this.
I recommend it to those who like complex fiction, who enjoy the demands of reading material that makes them think, and those who have a dry sense of humour - at the heart of this bleak, dark and all-too-believable novel of a near future we should fear to live in, is a joke so mordant and black, and so beautifully constructed and clever, that it will make you laugh out loud.
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With novelist Lesley Thomson at Brighton Festival's The Dog House reading event