Wednesday 7 January 2009

The life unwitnessed

The Rescue Man, by Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape)

The Rescue Man is the story of Tom Baines, an architectural historian living in Liverpool during the Second World War. Its author, the journalist Anthony Quinn, has been writing about film and books since 1986. He has been film critic at the Independent since 1998 and in 2006 was one of the judges of the Man Booker Prize. All those years immersed in literature have served him well: his debut novel is a great achievement.

The year is 1939 and Baines is working on a book about Liverpool’s architectural past. The project inspired him initially, but now, after two years of procrastination, it merely reminds him of his own inability to get things done. A mentor of Baines’s, the exquisitely named Professor Moray Lenox McQuarrie, suggests he hurry the process along by photographing, rather than sketching, the buildings in the survey. It is in following this suggestion that Baines comes across the photographer Richard Tanqueray and his wife Bella, who welcome the solitary historian into their lives and offer him the sort of friendship he hadn’t thought possible.

When the war begins, it is Richard who advises Baines to join the Air Raid Precautions Services rather than signing up to serve at the front. His role in ‘heavy rescue’, which involves entering seriously bomb-damaged buildings to search for survivors, alters Baines irreversibly. The emotional changes he undergoes open the door to a love affair that should not have been allowed to develop. This affair is the central concern of the second half of the novel.

Running alongside Baines’ story is that of Peter Eames, a young Victorian architect in whose journals Baines becomes engrossed. Despite possessing great genius Eames only ever completed two buildings and never received the acclaim he deserved. Early in the novel, Baines wonders to himself whether ‘he could only love a thing once its doom was certain’. Constantly drawn to that which is forgotten or destroyed in architecture, he is similarly fascinated by the splinter-edged puzzle pieces of Eames’ disappointed life.

Both these plots are individually very finely written, the Baines story particularly so. Quinn’s characters are utterly comprehensible without being simplistic; men and women with flaws and complexities that are strikingly real. At one stage in the novel, Baines, who maintains his rationality in even the direst of situations, cracks: he violently attacks a man he and his ARP team have caught robbing a jewellers. His reaction is ugly and undignified but undoubtedly true. Quinn’s characters’ weaknesses are testament to the strength of his writing.

There are occasional sentences that stick out because Quinn has used a more obscure word than strictly necessary, and there are a few lazy clichés, but these aberrations are more than made up for by the many moments of beautiful phrasing dotted throughout the novel. Describing his orphanhood, Baines tells Bella Tanqueray, ‘I had this idea that my life had been not just unparented, but – unwitnessed’. Later, near the end of the novel, Baines walks through the ruined city and ponders the events that have befallen it: ‘He traced in these ruined streets and levelled spaces a companionship of loss’.

These examples also serve to draw our attention to one of the novel’s most significant themes, that of the connection between identity and perception. Many of the Liverpool buildings that Baines is concerned with go unnoticed by all but him. There is a sense that, without this response, these buildings, already decaying, would cease to exist altogether. On a human level, Baines only comes alive when he is forced into situations of intimacy with the men in his rescue team. As the terrible aerial bombardment of Liverpool goes on, these men come to know Baines, and it is only through these relationships that he comes to know himself.

Aside from details of plot and theme, what makes The Rescue Man so enthralling is the way the two stories are layered together to create an extraordinarily complete picture of a city at a crucial period of its development. Quinn, a native of Liverpool himself, has twined his novel around the city so that a geographical reference in the Victorian plot will evoke a moment or character in the wartime plot and vice versa. The clarity of Quinn’s descriptions gives the novel a cinematic quality. The Rescue Man feels eminently adaptable in fact; I wouldn’t be surprised if one day Quinn finds himself on the other side of the film criticism divide.

As well as geographical references, there are plenty of narrative links between the stories. At times this linking risks feeling overcooked, but Quinn is clever and aware of the danger of too-tidy plots; every allusion is intended to beguile the reader’s expectations in some way, and the result is ultimately successful. By raising our expectations of what will happen in one plot through clues left in the other, Quinn builds suspense time and again, only to surprise us with the turn of the page. This is employed particularly well in the context of the love story; the effect is to pull the reader entirely into the stifled (and then not so stifled) passion of the relationship. One can’t help but be moved.

The Rescue Man reads like the work of an experienced novelist. Baines procrastinates at length about his book, losing the drive and the faith in his own ability to complete it. If Quinn felt any such anxieties during the writing of his Liverpool book, they are not apparent now.


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