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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Long Time No See

I recently finished the latest Robert Goddard novel, Long Time Coming - a delightful double entendre which reflects both the book's plot and the fact that it appears two years after his previous novel, rather than the usual one. This has undoubtedly benefited Long Time Coming, a fiendishly complex plot (like all of Goddard's best work) which alternates between 1940 and 1976, focusing ultimately on events in the tense, surreal environment of neutral wartime Dublin. Like others, I felt that the previous couple of Goddard novels had been disappointing and bore all the signs of being somewhat contrived and rushed to meet publishers' deadlines, so it's really pleasing to see one of my favourite authors return to form so impressively.

I first came across Goddard's books years ago when I bought Sea Change, set in the eighteenth century. This is actually the least typical work in his canon; most of his novels are set in the present or the near past and refer back to earlier historical periods. I've always been impressed by his formidable erudition, but since I started writing my own novels I've become increasingly appreciative of the tightness of his plotting, the grounding of his characters in their own personal histories (this influenced my construction of the Quinton family in my own books), and above all his mastery of pace. Goddard's books are grounded in 'real time', and one of the secrets of his success is that he allows his characters rather tighter time margins to get from A to B than most authors. This usually works superbly (is it possible to get from central London to Basingstoke and back again in the space of a few hours in an afternoon? Of course it is, although Goddard's world tends not to feature congestion on the M3) but it does mean that every book contains at least one or two chronological implausibilities: to take just one example in Long Time Coming, it's surely highly improbable that someone who's just been released after 36 years in an Irish jail would be able to obtain a temporary British passport in half a day in 1976 or at any other time in British history. But this is a very, very minor quibble. So like all Goddard fans, I now face a dilemma - do I hope that he reverts to one book a year, possibly with a consequent reduction in quality, or hope that the next one will also be a slightly longer time coming?

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