Sacrifices, by Michael Fishwick (review)


Michael Fishwick  Sacrifices  Jonathan Cape  £16.99 

Sacrifices is Michael Fishwick’s second novel, and hugely more accomplished than his first, Smashing People. Smashing People satirised the publishing industry, laying about the world of editors and proprietors with glee, but its characters never quite caught fire. But Sacrifices is not only expert in its characterisation; it is also wily in its structure. It offers you one story, but tells you five more in the process.

At first, it seems, we must unravel a mystery – a charismatic public school headmaster, Christopher Hughes, has been disgraced. The novel opens with his funeral. What exactly has brought him down – circumstance, or some weakness in his personality? The first witness, so to speak, is his only daughter, Anna, whose voice is fascinatingly cold and controlled. What Fishwick contrives is to switch attention away from her father, to absorb us in Anna’s highly partial account of herself. The second section, even more skilfully written, shifts us unexpectedly to Daniel, Anna’s ex-lover of twenty years earlier. Daniel is now a separated single father, devoted to his young teenage son. Stealthily, Fishwick moves the focus further and further away from Hughes, and involves us in Daniel’s own dilemmas. Daniel’s sacrifices become more interesting than the sacrifices – if that’s what they are – of Hughes. Whilst this section sketches in more about Hughes, we become engaged instead in the sentimental, romantic inner world of Daniel, and his anxieties about love. The adolescent uncertainties of his son, Jason, are touching, and perfectly observed.

Fishwick now plays another trump. The third part develops a new character, Mrs. Kobak, a former school matron who has once fallen foul of Hughes, even before his move to Deniston, the school at which Hughes’ career has mysteriously imploded. Mrs. Kobak, originally an Austrian-Jewish refugee, has featured briefly in Anna’s narrative, but we have not expected her to take centre-stage. For the third time, Fishwick shows his complete mastery of voice, drawing us into Mrs. Kobak’s slightly befuddled logic and involving us in her own life, and her concerns about her daughter and grand-daughter. By now the novel has become a study of all kinds of difficult relationships between parent and child (the solitary child being a repeated theme). Only in the fourth section, in which we switch to Hughes’s deputy, Rainsford, and his only son, Luke, is there an uncertain diversion. Fishwick creates a set-piece in which a host of chatterers, climbers and creeps are assembled by the woman Luke loves, his landlady, and also a PR guru. The novel shifts into the satirical mode which characterised Smashing People. It’s the only distraction. Soon we are back on track with Hughes’ wife, whose narrative cleverly takes us back to her traumatised childhood.

We do eventually understand Hughes, but the triumph of Sacrifices is to make the revelations, such as they are, almost incidental. Fishwick writes in a careful, exact and exacting fashion. His analogies, his dialogue, his shifts in tone are all expert. But his tactics are what make Sacrifices so good.


From The Independent