Michael Fishwick is a non-fiction editor at publishers Bloomsbury. So one might be forgiven for assuming that his path to publication was easier than most. (It reminds me of the competition run by the New Statesman in the 1970s, which asked readers to suggest the most unlikely book title. The winner was My Struggle by Martin Amis.) Fortunately, his second novel Sacrifices stands handsomely on its own feet, and would – or should – have been published even without its author’s connections.
In a roundabout way it tells the story of Christopher Hughes, a public school headmaster whose funeral is beginning at the start of the book. His daughter Anna, defensive and reflective, argues her father’s case now that he is no longer there to do it. She needs to do this because it’s pretty obvious that he was a nasty piece of work, and at the outset there are dark hints not only of the various natures of the nastinesses, but also how they may have led directly to his death.
What makes the book interesting beyond the story is Fishwick’s extraordinary control of the way he tells it. The book is in five voices, each people who have been adversely affected by Christopher Hughes, and the information and aspects of his personality drip-drip through the pages. By far the strongest are the first two sections, told from the points of view of Anna and her ex-boyfriend. Anna’s voice in particular is a brilliantly brittle, bitter performance:
What I should be thinking about is the occupant of the oaken box as it sails along, polish flashing in the sunlight. What does sunlight do in the presence of sorrow? It does not animate, it is metallic somehow; I can almost taste the sour, hot glare. The newness of the box from which it glints is the most offensive thing. It’s a here-today-gone-tomorrow, mass-produced factory affair, it doesn’t look like the one I thought we chose. Someone has put a lot of elbow grease into polishing it, though, and the polish magnifies the grain, brings the curling ruddy-brown lines that crowd in upon each other like the contours of a weather system up to the surface. There are knots in it. It is new, it is now, it gleams like Las Vegas.
To be honest, it is catastrophically vulgar.
It is passing me. It is passing. He is passing. Over the threshold.
They all avoid my eye.
These sections have a lingering melancholy which is shudderingly addictive, and by the end of the second part I was breathless in anticipation to see how Fishwick would take it from there.
He doesn’t quite manage it, and parts three and four are much weaker – in his defence, they were bound to be – and only in the final part, as seen by Hughes’s widow Deborah, does the book regain its force, and bring the whole to a satisfying conclusion. It’s about mismatched families, repression, squandered lives and the various forms of despair. Not a comedy then, but for at least half its length Sacrifices so frequently approaches greatness that the vigour of enjoyment easily transcends the gloomy subject matter.