A day in the life: a review of “In Every Face I Meet” by Justin Cartwright

evryface“In Every Face I Meet” is a 1995 Booker Prize-shortlisted novel by Justin Cartwright that takes place over the course of a single, pivotal London day in February 1990 in the life of melancholic forty-something business executive Anthony Northleach.

Northleach, a former talented rugby player (he once trialed for England ‘B’), works for a failing company (what it does is never quite revealed), convinced that the imminent release of Nelson Mandela will fundamentally shift the trajectory of the world, Britain and his own sense of existentialism.

Much of the novel is the inner monologue of Northleach – he recalls, with detailed wonder and awe, a brilliant try scored by English rugby captain Will Carling in a weekend drubbing of the French, he remembers pivotal moments from his childhood in the kingdom of Swaziland, he ponders his marriage, a passionate affair he once had, and his friendship with his best mate and fellow former rugby player Mike, whose life is spinning out of control.

The secondary storyline is that of Chanelle, a crack-addict and prostitute living in a council estate and her black boyfriend/pimp Jason – sporting a medallion of Nelson Mandela around his neck – living on the outer fringes of London society in the final vestiges of Thatcherism.

Without giving too much away, the two worlds – Northleach’s and Chanelle and Jason’s – are on course for a horrifying collision, but what the novel is really about is Northleach’s longing for the past and his disappointment with the present.

It seems that Cartwright has honed in on the second difficult period in an adult male’s life, (the first being adolescence with all its clumsy fumblings and urges) that period from about 40 onwards when there is cause to reflect and ask the question: “Have I lived a purposeful life?”

And if not, “Is there still time to find some meaning?”

Indeed, the character of Northleach must contain parts of Cartwright himself – who was born and schooled in South Africa, the son of a left-wing newspaper editor, and who wrote the book in London, when he was in his late forties.

I have read “In Every Face I Meet” twice – once while travelling overseas in 2010 and now again, when it turned up in a crate of goods shipped over from South Africa.

What’s so enjoyable about reading the book is being inside Anthony Northleach’s head for one day of his life, following him from the office, where he muses about whether his dowdy secretary will ever make it to Thailand, then on the Tube into Soho for lunch in an Italian restaurant with Mike (bumping into Will Carling along the way) where he invites Mike to come with him on his odyssey to Cape Town and finally on his fateful drive home where he encounters Chanelle and Jason.

Northleach, despite his many failings, is immensely likeable with his sardonic political and philosophical commentary, and his honest reflectiveness.

He (and the novel itself) will particularly appeal to white South African-expats (be they in Britain, Australia or entrenched in any other “safe” country),  nearing or past forty that still have a strong sense nostalgia for the old country, especially if you were there at the time Mandela was freed and the inkling of a utopian “Rainbow nation” first emerged.

Indeed, the book was a gift from a South African expat colleague and friend who raved about it and was right when he said I would find it immensely enjoyable to read.

Looking back to February 1990 when Mandela took his first steps to freedom, they do feel like halcyon days, filled with hope and the prospect of something new and fresh, but also scary and uncertain. We certainly lived through history in the making.

Reflecting back on my own life as I fast approach forty – there is much about Northleach’s longings and existential angst that resonates with me.

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