Fiction - paperback; Salt Publishing; 168 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of publisher.
David Rose's debut novel has one of the most intriguing dedications I've ever come across in all my years of reading: "Vault is dedicated to the staff of Pizza Express, Staines, where it was written, in my lunch hours."
But that's not the most intriguing thing about this short, effortlessly readable novel, which defies categorisation. The subject matter is equally interesting — road cycling, army snipers and nuclear espionage. It's almost as if Rose, a 61-year-old former Post Office worker, picked three random subjects out of a hat and then strung them together in narrative form. But somehow it seems to work.
The story is about McKuen, an Englishman, who becomes a sniper in the Second World War. Disturbed by some of the events (read killings) he participates in, he decides to atone after the war by cycling through the most devastated parts of Europe, handing out medicine and other aid. He does this alone, without the backing of any formal organisation, and for this he earns legendary heroic status, which he despises almost as much as his participation in the war.
He later reinvents himself as a successful road cyclist (he takes part in the first Tour of Britain in 1955) only to be mythologised again for heroic acts of athleticism. But he chucks it all in when an ongoing knee injury, sustained in the war, means he can never go professional.
As a civil servant, he is later recruited to foil a threat to Britain's burgeoning thermonuclear programme by an anti-nuclear group calling itself the Neutron Committee. McKuen's mission is a dangerous one, but despite the possibility of death — he knows the Government has chosen an untrained civilian because he is expendable — it doesn't worry him because:
At least it would be a specific death. Not a wartime statistic, as it could earlier have been. An individual death. Which becomes more important the older you get.
And that's where the book comes full circle: a man escaping death in the war puts himself back in death's sights, almost as if he wants to test his invincibility.
But the real twist in the tale of Vault is this: McKuen (if, indeed, that is his name) has discovered that his life story has been turned into a novel. So, what you get is one chapter, written in the third person, telling McKuen's story as if it is fiction, followed by another, written in the first person, by "McKuen" himself, either expanding on what has been written about his life or pointing out the novelist's errors. "Hasn't he checked any of the history?" he moans at one point. This interwoven narrative — of a fictionalised life undercut by the subject's recall of that same life — is hugely entertaining, illuminating and often very funny.
In this way, Vault pokes fun at the art of writing a novel, exposes its illusions and the way in which it can falsify "truth", but it also showcases what fiction, when done well, can, and ought to, achieve:
Look, none of this is in the novel. It's all so dry, so cold. I've spent my life hiding my emotions — you have to, to survive — hidden even from my self. There are feelings we don't understand ourselves. That's what we look to novelists for.
This is probably the most "literary" novel I've read all year, so it's disappointing that it didn't make the longlist for this year's Man Booker. (According to a note the publisher sent me, the book was submitted.) While Vault is not perfect (I thought the narrative slightly disjointed in places and the nuclear espionage sub-plot slightly far-fetched), it's a thought-provoking, intelligent read, one that is accessible and entertaining at the same time. The prose is lean and the storytelling thrilling. And it deserves a far wider audience than it has currently received.