At the Chime of a City Clock by D.J. Taylor

5 September, 2011

I really enjoyed D.J. Taylor’s social history Bright Young People: The Rise and Fall of a Generation 1918-1940 which I read a few years ago before I started blogging. It was light, bright and chock full of delicious little nuggets of social history about the roaring 20s. There was Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Cecil Beaton, the Mitfords and of course the flamboyant Stephen Tennant. It was of a bygone era where spoilt and debauched youngsters wasted their youth and looks in drink, drugs and partying. Although frothy and exciting, there was an underlying sense of gloom and desperation that this explosion of bad behaviour was only possible because of its fleeting nature, a romantic view of a bygone era threatened by looming war.

At the Chime of a City Clock is set in the 1930s and follows the story of James Ross, a short story writer who supplements his income by selling carpet cleaner door to door. Although educated at a public school, he is living hand to mouth as he tries to make a living as a writer. One day he meets Susie Chamberlain who works for a shady character named Mr. Rasmussen. As James takes on odd jobs (informer, facilitating a divorce), he finds himself moving in literary and even posh circles, all the while being used as a pawn in trapping Rasmussen.

What Taylor is good at is evoking the day to day life of people trying to scrape a living. Footloose and without a family, James juggles earning a living with looking for love and keeping himself on the right side of the law.

At the Chime of a City Clock is subtitled ‘A Thriller’ but there isn’t much of a mystery or even a thrill to the story. In fact, there isn’t much of a story at all. What there is plenty of is historical detail, everyday labels, Lyons tea houses, brands of goods, what people did every day. Although interesting to a social historian, I don’t think it quite worked as a novel. In fact, after a while, it just felt like I was reading a long list of things from the 1930s. I admit I struggled reading this and just wanted it to be over, which was disappointing as I really enjoyed Bright Young Things and love this historical period.

Taylor’s new novel The Derby Day has been longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, but I’m not sure if I’ll be reading it. However, do read Annabel’s review which mentions the same problem yet is much nicer.

You can read a Guardian article by Taylor here.

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